Remarks at the Societe Industrielle et Pauvrete Colloquium

March 8, 1969

One of the problems of American abundance is that it conceals and camouflages acute deprivation. Superhighways carry speeding commuters around the slums so they need never be aware of their existence.

Before discussing the American solution to poverty, we must first understand the nature of poverty in America, its causes - and its impact on the lives of people and the quality of society. I need not remind you that America is a wealthy nation in which 80-85% of its citizens enjoy a standard of living higher than any large group of people in history. The language of the original Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 recognizes this fact specifically when it states that "It is the policy of the United States to eliminate the paradox of poverty amidst plenty."

One of the problems of American abundance is that it conceals and camouflages acute deprivation. Superhighways carry speeding commuters around the slums so they need never be aware of their existence. Suburban zoning laws and the high cost of property guarantee that most middle-class Americans will never have to rub shoulders with the poor. Installment credit and no down-payments make it possible for even the poor to possess the trappings of prosperity. Urban slums and rural shacks bristle with television antennas. It is possible for the poorest American to have indoor plumbing, television, radio, telephone, refrigerator. Even an automobile is no sign of wealth in the U.S.A. and most of the poor are well-dressed, by the world's standards.

I remember when we first announced the Economic Opportunity program, reporters and editors from all over the world wanted us to arrange tours to the poverty-stricken areas of America. One of these, from Toledo, Ohio, was particularly insistent on knowing in what remote regions poverty could be found. We wrote back, "Go to Toledo." And he did. He saw for the first time in his own city - neighborhoods he had never visited - where people lived whose voices had never been heard - whose votes had never been counted - whose poverty had never been witnessed.

In 1964 the unsuccessful presidential candidate announced during the campaign that he had visited the Deep South and the mountains of Appalachia, and he had concluded there was no poverty in the United States. Most people believed this because they were insulated from the poor and because the poor were conclude from them.

Poverty exists in America because some of our citizens have been unable for a variety of reasons to enter the mainstream of the flourishing American economy. They, and in many cases their ancestors, have been barred by racial discrimination, geographic location, illiteracy, lack of skills, poor education, bad health, malnutrition, age - a complex series of misfortunes. And these difficulties seldom appear singly in one individual.

In 1964 when most Americans still did not believe in the existence of poverty there were actually 34,000,000 citizens who by American standards were living submarginal lives. The definition we applied in the development of our programs was very specific. If an individual had an income of less than 23 cents per meal per day and $1.40 left over for everything else - clothing, shelter, health, education, etc., he was poor. For a family of four, the poverty line was set at about $3,000 per year.

But when we began to analyze the true meaning of poverty we found teeth economic deprivation was in many ways the least of the problems faced by most of the poor. We found to our dismay that a nation which prided itself on the efficiency of its delivery systems for anything from space capsules to fresh strawberries in winter had not been able to solve the delivery of vital life services to the poor. And so in the black ghettoes of large cities, the migrant camps of California, on the Indian reservations, in the shadow of the Nation's capital and within eye-sight of Harvard Medical School or Columbia University, there were virtually not facilities for delivering to the poor families who lived there: Health or justice. First quality education or jobs. Literacy training, decent housing, or participation in the life of the community itself.

We found, too, that some of our most respectable theories about poverty in America were simply not true. Influenced by their Puritan heritage, many Americans were convinced that the poor were lazy, shiftless and undeserving of their help. Many felt that poverty in America was exclusively cased by racial discrimination and that all remedies should be directed at our 20,000,000 black citizens, most of whom live in cities.

These assumptions were almost totally wrong. On analysis, we found that 70% of the poor in America were white; only 50% lived in cities; 40% of the poor were children under 15 and 35% were over 55. Thus only 25% were of job-holding age. From the outset we determined that we wold have to strike simultaneously at the intertwined roots of poverty of all age groups, in all geographical locations and across the total range of their disabilities.

First we created within the government a single agency responsible for studying poverty, innovating solutions, operating programs, coordinating other anti-poverty efforts and serving both as a listening post for the poor, and as their voice in the highest echelons of government. The goal of this agency was to help poor people help themselves. We decided at the outset we would give no one a dole or a cash payment simply because he was without cash.

It is significant, I think, that we took for our symbol a ladder with an arrow pointing upward. People have to climb a ladder by themselves. We merely provide the rungs. Using the fairly broad mandate of the initial legislation, we developed programs that provided self-help opportunities for individuals of every age group and every disability. We created Head Start, to give children who had not yet started school a chance to have the educational and social experiences that were the natural birth-right of most American children.

To give teenagers who had dropped out of school, out of work and practically out of society another chance to make something of themselves, we organized the Job Corps. For youth in or out of school who were able to be helped within their own environment, we provided jobs and training through Neighborhood Youth Corps. For high school students whose performance was far below their potential, we designed Upward Bound, a program of educational enrichment and motivation.

When we found that America was spending more money each year on migratory birds than migrant laborers, we developed services which would help migrant children become better educated and enable their families to live healthier lives in better houses. To give Americans of all ages a chance to exercise their idealism and put their abilities to work for those less fortunate, we organized VISTA, Volunteers in Service for America, often called the Domestic Peace Corps.

Most ambitious, most controversial and most varied of all our efforts was a program called Community Action, designed to give poor people a chance to determine their own needs, to develop their own programs and to run them by and for the benefit of their own communities. Poor people had never before been given a chance to express themselves and to put to constructive use the particular kind of wisdom and skill they had acquired just through learning to survive. Frankly, most critics of the War on Poverty scoffed at this notion. If the poor were so incompetent, they said, they would not be poor. Mayors of cities were afraid that we were creating and financing a political machine of the disaffected which they could not control. Traditionalists in almost every kind of social enterprise or professional establishment protested that we were permitting untrained amateurs to perform in fields where only trained professionals knew the answers.

That was almost five years ago. But I am happy to say that as of 1969, Community Action is not only an integral part of American philosophy and practice, but its most ardent supporters are those who in the beginning feared it the most. Thus when poor people told us they needed better facilities for health and justice located right where they lived - not a six dollar taxi ride away - it was the American Medical Association and the Bar Association which gave their active support to programs necessary to deliver these services.

When poor people told us that Head Start was fine but after their children entered regular school the crowded classrooms and obsolete facilities conclude out Head Start gains, it was public educators who helped us create a program called Follow Through which should eventually change the entire pattern of education for the disadvantaged.

More recently, when we decided to launch a major effort to create jobs and job training in industry, American businessmen guaranteed to open up 100,000 jobs and, in partnership with the Federal Government, to train the hard-core unemployed to qualify for these jobs. I am delighted to say that their pledges are being fully met.

Above all, the Mayors of American towns and cities who in the beginning feared us most have now come to recognize that without Community Action the majority of our cities would ultimately become ungovernable. What we have given them is a means to enlist the active participation of all segments of the community in a concern for those most alienated from the community.

Before War on Poverty, officials of local ogive were fed up with the imposition of programs designed by bureaucrats in Washington and then operated by more Washington bureaucrats locally. This is the way social welfare had been administered since the New Deal in the 1930s. It was no longer relevant in the context of the 1960s. And so, with the support of the National Council of Mayors and the National League of Cities, we worked out a plan to give local people the power, the money and the organization to run their own local fight against poverty. This is what we meant by Community Action, and I believe we have provide that it works.

This is a brief summary of the kinds of solutions we have brought to bear on poverty your in America since 1964. We have not yet, I am sorry to say, eliminated poverty completely, but the facts would indicate that we are on the right track. If we had been able to spend more, we would, of course, be much further along the way. You will be interested to know that the appropriations for the Office of Economic Opportunity have amounted each year to less than one cent and a half out of every tax dollar collected by the US Government.

But even with limited funds, our programs have had a profound effect on the incidence of poverty in the United States. Since 1964, Americans have been moving out of poverty at 2 1/2 times the annual rate for the preceding five-year period. When the War on Poverty began there were, as I pointed out, 34,000,000 Americans living on incomes below the poverty line. By December of 1967 the number had been reduced to 26,000,000 and today it is down to 22,000,000.

Among white Americans, one out of seven was poor in 1964. By 1967 that had been reduced to one in ten. Among nonwhites, the reduction has been even more startling. In 1964, more than half of all nonwhites in the United States were poor. Today the number has been reduced to less than one in three.

During the five years before the War on Poverty began, about 840,000 white Americans and 80,000 nonwhites moved out of poverty each year. Since 1964 when our programs began, an average of 1.7 million whites and 700,000 nonwhites have escaped poverty annually. For nonwhites that is an increase of 900%.

What of the future? We believe that over the next decade we must continue to provide the kinds of self-help programs we have already begun. If our economy remains healthy, the private sector will continue to provide job training and job openings. For those who cannot qualify for employment in our technologically complex private sector, we have recommended a large scale program of public employment through which poor people can help provide badly needed services in institutions, schools, hospitals, recreation facilities and in programs of beautification and conservation.

To give this kind of employment dignity and status, we have developed an entirely new employment philosophy called "New Carers." Through this approach, poor people without the requisite credentials can receive education and training on the job to permit them to qualify ultimately for professional standing.

With all our best and most sincere efforts to give people a hand-up, we estimate that at least 10,000,000 Americans form a hard and permanent core that simply cannot be taken out of poverty through employment - either public or private, or through education, training or better health and justice. These are the old, the chronically infirm, the women who serve as heads of fatherless families and others who disabilities are too severe.

For this group of Americans we have long advocated a system of granted income, preferably through a form of negative income tax which would return to them either all or part of the difference between their current income and the poverty line. We believe that such a program would provide incentives to work for those who are able and would provide a decent standard of living for those who are not.

We have come a long way in the United States from the time less than five years ago when the majority of Americans did not believe poverty existed. Today most Americans are aware of the poor and very many of them, in more than 1,000 Community Action organizations are in some way involved in efforts to eliminate poverty and the conditions that breed it.

Even with change in Administrations, the poverty pogrom remains high on the agenda of national concern. In a recent message to Congress, President Nixon expressed his commitment to the work and objectives of the Office of Economic Opportunity. He said:

"The plight of poverty requires priority attention. It engages our hearts and challenges our intelligence. It cannot and will not be treated lightly or indifferently."

And so, America's struggle against poverty goes forward. If we do not lose our will, and if we have the courage to commit adequate resources to the fight we can by 1976, the 200th anniversary of our founding, become the first nation in the history of the world to eliminate poverty for all its citizens.