Empowerment Government and the War on Poverty

January 7, 2014

By Jamie Price

Partisan political wrangling significantly constrains and distorts the search for solutions and effective methods to combat America’s growing rates of poverty and income inequality. The only consensus seems to be a tacit agreement to ignore or dismiss the solutions and methods that America pursued in response to President Johnson’s declaration of “unconditional war on poverty” 50 years ago: the national experiment in local, empowerment government that Sargent Shriver designed and led at the behest of the President between 1964 and 1968. Contemporary debate about the merits of LBJ’s war on poverty tends to focus on income transfer programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance, rather than on the signature methods and programs created by the Office of Economic Opportunity at the time.

Thus, it may come as a surprise to learn that LBJ gave Shriver only one guide line when he tapped him to lead the War on Poverty: “No doles!” And that Shriver mounted a national effort to eliminate the root causes of poverty and income inequality by pursuing an empowerment approach to government: a comprehensive, targeted strategy designed to insure that all Americans had access to economic opportunity. Shriver’s motto for the War on Poverty was “A hand up, not a hand out,” a principle that guided the formulation of policies and procedures in all its programs: Community Action, Job Corps, Head Start, Work Study, Neighborhood Heath Services, and Legal Services for the Poor, among others. As Shriver explained, “Helping the poor help themselves is the keystone of the President's poverty program. It does not offer handouts; it offers opportunities. It is concerned with creating the conditions under which the child born into poverty can have the chance to help himself, to compete on equal terms with those lucky enough to be born into affluence.”

Shriver’s empowerment approach to addressing the structural and personal complexities of living in poverty generated significant controversy early on, and his strategy has been regularly misunderstood and misrepresented ever since. The Right tends to dismiss the War on Poverty as a top-down, big government, bureaucratic nightmare that subverts individual initiative and encourages dependency. The Left tends to dismiss it as overly focused on individual opportunity and insufficiently concerned with the social pathologies that drive income inequality. Both characterizations miss the mark because they fail to wrestle with the War on Poverty in its own terms. Shriver was not staking out a partisan political position; he was implementing an empowerment method for solving the problem of poverty.

In speeches delivered throughout the period, Shriver detailed the methodological virtues of empowerment government. First, it provided the questions and criteria needed to make concrete decisions about the design and effectiveness of particular policies. For example, “Is it voluntary?” Empowerment cannot be compelled, so no policy or program in the War on Poverty would compel individual or community participation. “Does it foster hope and initiative?” No individual or community can be empowered if their own capacities are not activated, so the aim of all policies and programs was to foster the individual initiative and community action triggered by realistic hopes for a future beyond poverty.

Second, it offered a realistic, tough-minded approach for generating humanistic results. In Shriver’s words: “The simplest description of the War on Poverty is that it is a means of making life available for any and all pursuers. It does not try to make men good – because that is moralizing. It does not try to give men what they want – because that is catering. It does not try to give men false hopes – because that is deception. Instead, the War on Poverty tries only to create the conditions by which the good life can be lived – and that is humanism.”

Third, it was nonpartisan. Shriver celebrated the fact that Congress passed the Equal Opportunity Act in August of 1964 with bipartisan support: 61-32 in the Senate and 226-184 in the House. He maintained that this approach was rooted in the founding spirit and values of the nation: “The war against poverty [is] part of the same battle we have fought ever since a struggling nation was established on the edge of a wild and new continent. It is a battle to allow every citizen the full reward of his capacity. Other nations have had other reasons for existence. The American nation exists for that purpose – to bring opportunity to all.”

By quantitative measures, LBJ’s war on poverty was a short-term success, because the number people living in poverty in the United States declined by 30% between 1964 and 1968. But the long-range promise of Sargent Shriver’s experiment in creating locally based empowerment government on a national scale has never been realized. Even though many of the programs created during the War on Poverty still exist – and even though local empowerment programs inspired by the War on Poverty continue to succeed – Shriver’s comprehensive, national approach to empowerment government was abandoned early on: first by President Johnson himself, who increasingly prioritized funding for the Viet Nam War over the War on Poverty, and then by President Nixon, who dismantled the Office of Economic Opportunity, dispersed its programs into a variety federal agencies, and shifted the core federal strategy from Shriver’s empowerment approach to a reliance on income transfer programs. This policy shift sets the context for today’s partisan debates, to which Shriver would add: a war on poverty can never be won by transfer payments alone.

Recently, President Obama declared that growth in income inequality and the number of working poor families in the U.S. poses “a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.” But as Shriver clearly understood, it is one thing to diagnose a problem; it is quite another to solve it. Thus, as President Obama draws down America’s engagement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there could be no better response to this inner threat to America’s way of life than to join President Johnson in declaring again an unconditional war on poverty and by unfurling the bi-partisan banner of locally based, empowerment government.