On Aug. 20, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act. The act created a variety of programs that are still active and effective today and that had a significant impact in Douglas County.
These programs include Job Corps, Head Start, Community Health Centers, Foster Grandparents, RSVP, Senior Companions, Senior Centers, Legal Services, College Work Study, Adult Basic Education, Small Business Loans, VISTA, Community Action Agencies like United Community Action Network, and more.
All of this was part of a larger effort by President Johnson, often referred to as his War on Poverty.
The idea of these programs was not to redistribute wealth, but to provide economically disadvantaged families with a means to obtain a decent standard of living. This legislation is unique in that much of its funding is provided directly to local communities, realizing that the solutions to poverty are best found at the local level and not through “one size fits all” government based solutions.
This concept is still alive with UCAN, as it is a local nonprofit agency run by local people and addressing local problems in a manner that works best for Douglas County. In many ways this legislation was way ahead of its time with its design, implementation, and programs, which are just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.
UCAN first served Douglas County residents in 1967 under the name of Parents Action Council. It was started by three women on welfare who wanted to help other women become self-supporting.
From the beginning UCAN has been focused on helping people reach their fullest potential and assisting individuals and families in times of crisis to get back on their feet.
For almost 45 years UCAN has helped hundreds of thousands of people do this, and currently helps about a third of Douglas County residents with one or more of its services. It is clear from the lives UCAN has changed over the years that President Johnson’s War on Poverty was a success.
There are those, however, who will state that Johnson’s War on Poverty failed and that poverty won. The fact that poverty is still with us is inarguable, but the notion that this is due to a failure of these programs is erroneous for two reasons.
First, even though these programs did not win the war, they fought back very successfully against this enemy and pushed it down to levels far below where it was when the war first started. The facts are quite impressive; prior to Johnston’s efforts senior poverty levels sat in the low 30 percent range and now sit in the low teens.
Overall poverty rates dropped from the low 20 percent range to the low teens until rising again to the mid-teens, but only after a significant cut back in the resources to fight this war. Like any war if you start pulling troops out of the battlefield, before the war is won, there will be losses of ground.
The second reason it is erroneous to say that this effort failed is that we now have an understanding of another root cause of poverty that Johnson’s programs were not designed to address: the growing wealth disparity in our country.
There is a growing understanding that as more people divide up a smaller percentage of wealth in our society, the less we all get. This, along with the recent recession which has only increased this trend, actually is the bigger reason for rises in poverty these days, and is an issue Johnson’s programs did not tackle.
The understanding we have now that we did not have 50 years ago is that it will take a battle on two fronts — a battle on the societal systems front and a battle on the individual front — to truly beat back poverty. Without this two-pronged approach we will always be engaged in a defensive effort against poverty.
President Johnson started this battle 50 years ago with a group of very successful programs that have seen wonderful successes with individuals and families.
But it is now time to reinvigorate this effort to address the systemic problems in our society that increase the number of people living in poverty. In past history there was a Hundred Years’ War; let’s hope that this war does not last that long.
Finding the solution to poverty will benefit us all, as poverty is a drain on our society, our resources and our human potential. We know poverty increases health care costs, handicaps the development of young children which plays out negatively over a lifetime, and is the basis of many more societal problems.
It is a problem we must address, for we all will benefit when every citizen has the opportunity to reach their fullest potential and be free of poverty and its negative effects.
Mike Fieldman is executive director of United Community Action Network based in Roseburg. He can be reached at Mike.Fieldman@ucancap.org or 541-672-3421.