Guest Blog: Redefining the Mission

by Jean Amison, Region II CSBG Representative

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, began by President Lyndon Johnson in his inaugural speech in 1964. On August 20, 1964, he signed the Economic Opportunity Act, which created Community Action Agencies (CAA’s) and grassroots programs to fight poverty. Years later, in an address to Congress in September, 2010 and again in his State of the Union address in 2014, President Obama asked, “how do we create ladders of opportunities to help individuals climb into the middle class?” As we celebrate 50 years of helping people move out of poverty, CAA’s are creating such ladders and continuing the work started so many years ago. This year we are celebrating our successes in the war on poverty, while tirelessly looking to the future to see what we can still accomplish. To echo President Johnson’s words, in 2014 as in 1964, we have a “unique opportunity and obligation to prove the success of our system.”

Mobilizing all resources, both internally and externally, CAA’s make known the causes of poverty and offer viable solutions for reversing those causes, which then impacts the low income community. CAA’s are positioned to speak for the poor and impoverished communities unlike any other network. There is a connection to the community through its board, its initiatives, and its management to produce results that improve individuals and communities. It is uncertain if President Johnson knew how broad the effects would be of his war on poverty, nor how long this war would last. As we reflect on the past 50 years, we are learning what worked and what didn’t. We are also redefining our mission for the next generation of soldiers in this war.

Community Action is not just about a funding stream, or a phrase to define a program. Its name implies its mission: action in the community to alleviate the causes and conditions of poverty. It requires everyone – the individual, the agency, the community, state and federal partners – to address the barriers to social mobility. According to Richard Reeves, from the Brookings Institution, in his remarkable video on Social Mobility using Legos, one out of three people born into poverty will move beyond to make it into the middle or upper class, while only one in ten will actually make it to the top percentile. “We can have a long argument about the gap between the rich and the poor,” Reeves says. “But I think we can all agree that we don’t want to live in a society where where you’re born determines so strongly your chances in life of where you end up.”

His statistics are troubling. So what can be done? This is where Community Action is unique in its approach to combatting these statistics. Community Action agencies deliver programs and services that provide the supportive structure to individuals and families to increase their chance at upward mobility. Local administering agencies combine many different funding streams, including CSBG, Head Start, TANF, LIHEAP, WAP, Transportation, and Housing, and partner with many local, state and federal partners in order to assist the poorest residents in their service area. And this is not an easy task. Many of the programs require vigorous data collection, reporting and fiscal controls, and there are eligibility and funding constraints on many of the programs. The board members are all volunteers, some of them members of the very community the agency is tasked with serving, but they play a large role in what an agency can accomplish regardless of its yearly budget. This model has worked for the last 50 years and is still going strong because it is the community that connects the agency to an individual’s success. These are the ladders of opportunity that President Obama spoke of.

Much planning and work goes into the collaborative efforts to alleviate the conditions of poverty. We have much work to do. To be the richest nation on earth, we are also the poorest. People born into poverty have a 30-50% chance they will not rise above it in their lifetime. If we look at national figures, it can be overwhelming. However, the groundwork has already been done so that our work can continue. Agencies must take a close look at their capacity, staffing, funding and local needs to find answers to how the next generation will combat poverty. For fifty years, Community Action has put a human face on poverty while advocating for those who don’t have a voice. Our agencies and programs have provided and will continue providing opportunities for low-income people to reach for the American Dream.

Written for NASCSP by:
Jean Amison, Region II CSBG Representative
CSBG/LIHEAP Program Manager at Bureau of Community Assistance, Division of Community Development, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity