Twenty-five years ago this month, in a faraway liberal country, a government agency called the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was established by an act of Congress. It survived under that name for one stormy decade, and a remnant of it limped along under a different name (the Community Services Administration) until the first year of the Reagan Administration. The OEO was created to fight the “War on Poverty” that President Lyndon Johnson declared in his 1964 State of the Union address.

For a small and short-lived government agency, the OEO had a tremendous impact on the collective unconscious of American politics, and to some extent it still does. Most people believe that it failed, in an extremely expensive and destructive way; the War on Poverty is thought to have been a cause of the current disastrous conditions in black ghettos and to have nearly bankrupted the country. The “lesson” of the OEO that seems to prevail at the moment is that poverty programs don’t work, can’t work, and, if they have any effect at all, it’s probably to increase poverty.

Yet there is a relatively tiny minority that remembers the OEO fondly, as a kind of high water mark of noble purpose in domestic government. As you read this, hundreds of teary OEO reunions are going on all over the country. Most of those in attendance believe that the OEO did very little wrong, and that the reason the War on Poverty failed was that it was never really fought, mainly because the escalation in Vietnam came along only a few months later and drained away its resources.

You’d have to go back to the days of the Bank of the United States to find so dense a cloud of mythology surrounding a federal agency. The reason it’s so difficult to see the OEO clearly is that it directly touched what are probably the two most sensitive nerve endings in the American mind: race relations and the creed of self-reliance. Though it wasn’t intended to be, the OEO became the government’s principal point of contact with the black ghettos and the black power movement. And it spent tax money to help the able-bodied (or “undeserving”) poor. It is extremely difficult to do these things and survive.

But the OEO could have done a better job—especially a better job of surviving. While Johnson was right to declare War on Poverty in his mind, he was wrong to declare it publicly in his first State of the Union address. The percentage of poor Americans went way down during the sixties, but Johnson had set the rhetorical stakes so high that as long as any visible poverty remained, he would look like a defeated commander.

Once war had been declared, the next mistake was deciding to wage it primarily through quasi-independent local “community action agencies.” Many of them did a good job, and hundreds still exist as a force for good in their towns, preparing toddlers for school, teaching adults to read, starting credit unions that make loans to new businesses, and rehabilitating housing. But as an administrative tactic, community action was uninspired, to say the least. The concept was new, vague, and open to wildly different interpretations—there was never a simple answer to the question, “What is community action, anyway?” Many of the local community action agencies were brand-new and therefore lacked any institutional memory about how to run something. Because there were so many horror stories, the OEO was extremely vulnerable to them. When the community action agency in Newark helped stage a play by LeRoi Jones that portrayed Rochester from the Jack Benny Show righteously killing white people, the stock of the entire community action program went down.

Community action was created in a spirit of mistrust of the established political order, especially in the South, and it was designed to distribute its monies outside the usual political channels. This meant, however, that it started life with an extraordinarily powerful set of enemies, including the established federal domestic departments, such as Labor, Agriculture, and Health, Education, and Welfare, and those governors, mayors, and members of Congress who were unable to control the antipoverty funds going into their districts. As a result, the primary political battles over the OEO were about form (who ran the community action agencies) not function (what the community action agencies actually did to fight poverty). Even if there had been no Vietnam, the OEO would have been in political trouble; Johnson himself soon turned against it, feeling (not inaccurately) that it was a nest of admirers of his archenemy, Robert Kennedy.

OEO scoreboard

The War on Poverty also suffered because, about a year into its existence, its intellectual rationale became passé. In 1964, when the war was planned, most liberals (except economists) believed that the crucial task was to break the hold of the “culture of poverty” by offering poor people a lot of special education and training. By 1965, the culture-of-poverty thesis was on its way to becoming anathema to intellectuals because it seemed patronizing and social-workerish. Instead, poverty should be fought either by giving poor people cash or through economic-development and political-empowerment schemes in poor areas. Even the leaders of the poverty program did not spend their main energies selling ideas like Head Start.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that everybody should have been focusing on the question of whether or not the OED’s programs were helping poor people. Everybody wasn’t, though, and as a result the successes of this extremely high-profile agency were curiously obscure. There were many things the OEO did that worked. There is a demonstrable difference in early development between poor children in Head Start and poor children not in Head Start. Job-training programs like the Job Corps and the Neighborhood Youth Corps, while expensive, did raise their trainees’ subsequent earnings. The impact of VISTA and the Foster Grandparents program (which was created by the OEO, not Nancy Reagan) is probably impossible to measure, but both helped create some sense of common cause between the poor and the not-poor. By raising the nation’s consciousness about social-welfare issues, the OEO helped create a climate that made later antipoverty advances, such as food stamps and Social Security disability payments, possible.

It’s important to demythologize the War on Poverty. The OEO, a smallish federal agency, didn’t create the underclass. It won’t do to cut off the debate about social programs by saying that the OED’s failure proves that no program can work. Actually, we know quite a bit about what the War on Poverty did and didn’t do well. Broadly speaking, what poverty programs haven’t been able to do well is to turn very poor neighborhoods into stable working-class environments with safe streets, good schools, and plentiful jobs. The main reason for this is the heavy out-migration from very poor neighborhoods. Discussions about helping the underclass today concentrate too much on the idea of community development, and not enough on assisting this natural process of up and out.

Probably the greatest success of the War on Poverty was as a jobs program. The OEO put many thousands of blacks on the road to becoming middle class by putting them on the government payroll. In 1970, during the sunset period of the Great Society, 57 percent of black male college graduates and 72 percent of black female college graduates worked for government. The irony here is that the planners of the War on Poverty explicitly rejected the idea of fighting poverty through a big job-creation program. The second overall success of the OEO was in what might be called acculturation: efforts designed to impart the mores of mainstream American society (good prenatal care, literacy, work skills, and habits) to the poor. Head Start is an example. But this is an uncomfortable truth too, because it bears out the verboten culture-of-poverty thesis.

There are some problems that the War on Poverty and its ripple effects did alleviate, most notably elderly poverty. But the problem of ghetto poverty is even more urgent now than it was then. We need to solve it, and we can solve it. A lack of intellectual honesty about the OEO is one of the main roadblocks. 

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Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.