Address to Denver Community Action Programs

Denver, CO | October 15, 1975

The irony of America today is that we have everything to achieve our objectives -- the people, the resources, the political, religious, and philosophical traditions. We have everything we need today … but confident leadership.

First of all, let me congratulate you – not just for organizing this meeting, but for surviving to do it. Not even Richard Nixon -- at the height of his awesome power – could stop what you are doing -- and have been doing since 1964. You have gone up against vice presidents, governors, mayors and congressmen - notably including the former minority leader -- and come away victors not victims. And now, even liberals -- who should know better -- seem to have been won over by the rhetoric of our baser instincts. You know the cliche -- "you can't solve problems by throwing money at them" -- as if we ever tried or wanted to do that. Or, they condemn the poverty program as an archaic, Great Society experiment that failed -- rather than the dynamic, change-oriented, experimental effort it has always been.

It's time to ask -- in this season of cynicism -- why is that so. Why is it that Head Start, Legal Services, the Job Corps and even Community Action still survive? I would offer three reasons.

The first reason is you. You, and the 90,000 members of the 899 CAA organizations serving almost 85% of the populated areas of the U.S. You wouldn't let it die. Richard Nixon and Jerry Ford will never understand -- your commitment to the poor. Their commitment is to things as they are. Even poverty level wages could not destroy your commitment. Almost 80% of all CAA employees earn less than $8,000 per year. Worse, almost 40% earn less than $5,000 per year. Less than 1% of all CAA employees in the United States earn over $15,000 per year. That should give the lie to those who claim that poverty workers feed luxuriously at the public trough. Yours is a tested courage.

Second, you're obviously doing something right. Child development, health services, housing and legal assistance, economic development, credit unions, energy programs, food and nutrition programs, local transportation systems and many of the other services you provide are desperately needed. And they are most needed at the neighborhood level - exactly where we placed them.

Third -- and regrettably less obvious -- you have an admirable record of efficiency. Every dollar of federal funds that goes into your agency generates almost $2.50. That's a multiplier effect any corporate tycoon would envy. You have been so successful in raising additional federal funds, state funds, local funds and in-kind contributions that when it's all added up, your agency and your individual work bring into local communities more than $842 million. No other program can make that claim. If the Shah of Iran or the Sheiks of Saudi Arabia want to know how to invest their petro dollars, I suggest they go not to Washington or the big banks but into the neighborhoods where the CAA's are active. They'll find out how to get the biggest bang for their bucks in bringing their own people out of poverty.

But let no one be deceived – we will not end poverty in my lifetime or in yours -- whatever your efforts -- unless Henry Ford recalls Jerry Ford for new bearings, and a new block, topped off by a realignment of all the wheels in this administration. Mr. Ford prefers to build $1.2 billion boats -- that even the navy doesn't want -- rather than to help people. Just think of it. We spent about $1.2 billion in each of the first two years at OEO -- for health care, education, jobs, etc. What would we get out of Ford's boat?

Almost ten years ago I submitted to the president the first and only national anti-poverty plan. In that plan I stated, "This plan takes as its explicit goal ending poverty in the United States as we now define it by ten years from now – by 1976 – I believe this country can afford to adopt this goal and that it […]

We have not ended poverty. Rather, we have increased it – not by mistake but by national policy committed to increasing unemployment, not jobs.

Where do we go from here? How do we find the way forward? What can we learn from the last ten years that will guide us in shaping our future?

There is now, I believe, an extraordinary chance. The poor no longer stand alone. Unlike the 60's, the faces of the poor are everywhere to be seen. That means political opportunity to rebuild the vital constituency for change in America that Franklin Roosevelt first assembled. Public service jobs are not the exclusive concern of the poor any longer. They're wanted by middle class Americans as well. We have a chance now to create an income maintenance safety net precisely because more Americans -- perhaps a majority -- see that they, too, might need that help. Polls show overwhelming support for a national health care system. Access to higher education will have high priority on our national agenda in the next four years, not because the children of the poor can't go to college -- that's always […] conservative columnist George Will recently observed, the school lunch program was approved over president Ford's veto because it was not a program for the poor alone. It's not a question of who has the greater need or the stronger claim on the nation's limited resources. Saul Alinsky once said, "when a moral matter is at stake and change needs to be brought about, the greatest immorality is to choose a means which will not work." The means that will work is now at hand. It lies in the millions of American who are not poor but who seek now the chance we created then. To create that new coalition for change requires political leadership sensitive to the points of common concern -- the intersections of interest that concert our purpose as a people. That's the kind of leadership I offer.

You have taught us another lesson -- community action works. And it's a model -- not just for poverty programs but for delivery of many other public services. To those who oppose centralized, rigid, unresponsive bureaucracy -- as I have always done -- but have given up on government, your efforts are the answer. Head Start, Neighborhood Legal Services, Foster Grandparents, Neighborhood Health Services -- these were the least bureaucratic enterprises in modern governmental history. They […] the distinguished philosopher, said it well:

"The job of leadership in our time is not doing things oneself, but making it possible for others to do them. It demands not only participation but process: an open, flexible, listening, experimental attitude, willing to learn by mistakes and from experienced hands. And, finally, patience. Patience, I repeat, because we cannot change structures by the use of power alone. We must change hearts and minds to change structures permanently for the good of the people. All power does not come from the barrel of a gun. In a democracy it must come from the hearts and minds of people...if despair has almost replaced hope, let us remember we are an Abrahamitic people -- people who hope against hope."

Our cause can't be allowed to collapse merely because the enthusiasm has worn off. It should be extended by enlisting the efforts and enthusiasm of middle class Americans. That's what my campaign seeks to do.

The irony of America today is that we have everything to achieve our objectives -- the people, the resources, the political, religious, and philosophical traditions. We have everything we need today … but confident leadership.

True, I seek the support of the American people as a man who's never held elective office. But leadership in America can no longer be left to those who have had the opportunity to lead and failed. Today, ideas and experience in making them work are far more important than political pedigree -- and political debts. We've learned in this country that experience in winning elections doesn't mean an ability to govern. The presidency requires proven executive leadership ability plus a healthy skepticism about the role and capacity of the federal government.

But I do not intend to let skepticism about government destroy my belief in people. Nor have I lost faith in enlightened human action. I am convinced that the people's cynicism about politicians rises and falls with the politicians' cynicism about people. And I am no cynic.

I believe it is vital to do as much listening as talking, as much questioning as answering, and that the American people are the greatest teachers of all.

I ask for your support in a spirit of hope and in the conviction that, together, we can, in Lincoln's words, "Summon the better angels of our nature."

What we will need is a rallying together, a mutual struggle, not just a commitment to a candidate but a commitment to one another in this campaign -- as in life -- the greatest good we can do for others is not just to share our riches with them but to reveal theirs to themselves.