Called to serve: Fighting the War on Poverty
By Clarence Hightower
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
“Those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.” — Booker T. Washington
“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” — Albert Einstein
“So it is obvious that if a man is to redeem his spiritual and moral ‘lag,’ he must go all out to bridge the social and economic gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’s’ of the world. Poverty is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Shortly after President Johnson declared America’s War on Poverty in January 1964, Robert Sargent Shriver was tapped to lead the newly formed Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Shriver, brother-in-law to the late President Kennedy, initiated a number of programs and initiatives including what came to be known as the Community Action Movement.
Today, approximately 1,000 Community Action agencies serve every county in the United States, plus Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. As the leader of one of these agencies, I often ask my staff to remember that there are a myriad of noble professions in the world, but there are none nobler than one dedicated to the service of others, particularly those who have been cast to the margins of society.
Within the first few years of the Community Action Movement, poverty in America sharply decreased by roughly 10 million people by 1969. Many anti-poverty scholars and activists have argued that as the war in Vietnam escalated, funding priorities shifted causing the movement’s momentum to stall in the mid-1970s. For the next quarter century the total number of people living in poverty ebbed and flowed until steadily rising from the late 1990s to the present day. It was during this period that the number of poor Americans rose from just over 30 million to nearly 50 million.
Some critics suggest this is proof the War on Poverty has failed. I believe, quite to the contrary, that the War on Poverty and Community Action agencies have been tremendously successfully in lifting low-income Americans out of poverty and toward financial independence. Clearly market trends, coupled with other political, social, and cultural forces have resulted in more Americans living in poverty than at any time in this nation’s history.
In spite of this, I believe that the problem would be much deeper were it not for the work of Community Action agencies and other anti-poverty efforts across America. So while there is still much work to do, the movement continues to make a significant impact in low-income households every day. For example, each year more than 100,000 Community Action employees and approximately 800,000 agency volunteers provide direct services to 16 million poor Americans.
The agency I represent, Community Action Partnership or Ramsey & Washington Counties, is the oldest and second largest Community Action agency in Minnesota with around 270 employees and a $22 million budget. Annually, we serve more than 20,000 households and a total of 70,000 individuals living in poverty. And more than 1,500 volunteers contribute over 30,000 hours each year to helping low-income citizens of Ramsey and Washington counties.
While the funds don’t presently exist to serve all those caught within poverty’s grasp, our agency improves the quality of life for thousands between the ages of zero to over 100. We assist a multitude of individuals and families chart a course out of poverty and toward self-sufficiency.
In addition to helping low-income citizens access critical income supports, including proven anti-poverty tools such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), agency programs and initiatives help individuals purchase reliable transportation, advance their education, purchase a home, or start a small business. Through Head Start and Early Head Start, children ages zero to five receive a comprehensive early childhood education, along with developmental and nutritional support, in order to build a foundation for success in both school and life.
This is just a smattering of the evidence that proves Community Action agencies work and why it is so critical to keep up the War on Poverty. Each and every day, our staff role up its sleeves and fights the good fight against inequity, injustice, and indifference. They make an indelible impact in the lives of their fellow citizens and in doing so become part of something greater than themselves.
As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.