Impossible Democracy: The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty Community Action Programs, Why America Lost the War on Poverty--and How to Win It.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Spring, 2009 Source Volume: 42 Source Issue: 3|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Impossible Democracy: The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty Community Action Programs (Nonfiction work); Why America Lost the War on Poverty - and How to Win It (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Cazenave, Noel A.; Stricker, Frank|
Impossible Democracy: The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty
Community Action Programs. By Noel A. Cazenave (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 2007. xvii plus 264 pp.).
Why America Lost the War on Poverty--and How to Win It. By Frank Stricker (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. xiii plus 345 pp.).
Frank Stricker and Noel A. Cazenave have written two very different books about the U.S. federal government's War on Poverty in the 1960s. Historian Stricker employs a broad view, examining poverty, public policy, and politics over half a century, and declares the War on Poverty a failure, while Cazenave, a historical sociologist, focuses on two 1960s community action projects in New York City that preceded and influenced the War on Poverty and finds "unlikely success." Despite these contrasting approaches and conflicting arguments, Stricker's synthesis and Cazenave's case studies together provide a picture of the recent American past that challenges current popular and political, if not scholarly, understandings of the first and only time in history Americans sought an end to poverty. These books also reassert the role of politics and the state in dealing with economic forces and developments, a welcome reassertion in an era of increasing economic insecurity and globalization.
Stricker's synthesis demonstrates the persistence of poverty and the inadequacy of public policies aimed at dealing with it from the 1950s into the 21st century. Despite unprecedented economic growth and productivity, at least eleven percent of the U.S. population, and often more, have lived in poverty during this period of time. Stricker locates the causes of poverty primarily in unemployment, part-time employment, or poor-paying jobs and attributes these conditions to capitalism and market forces, rather than to individual problems or group failings. Utilizing a Marxist perspective, he argues "unemployment is normal for capitalism" and benefits individual capitalists by controlling workers and suppressing wages (4). In opting for a structural, and not an individual or cultural, analysis of poverty, he departs from and criticizes the liberal War on Poverty in the 1960s, which focused on blocked opportunities to employment among poor Americans due to inadequate education and job training, as well as conservatives in the 1980s, who blamed impoverished Americans not only for their joblessness but also their dependence on liberal welfare programs. With this understanding of the causes of poverty, Stricker makes a strong argument for the necessity of public job creation to solve the problem of poverty.
What is most powerful about Stricker's overview is how he consistently presents the political and economic decisions that have sustained poverty over a half century, from the War on Poverty when politicians and policymakers ostensibly sought to eradicate it, to the subsequent war on the poor when they undermined welfare benefits and other social services and, at the same time, maintained unemployment levels as a curb to inflation and benefit to business. This overview demonstrates that the U.S. federal government has the authority and resources to act decisively in the economic arena, and Why America Lost the War on Poverty--and How to Win It ends with a list of "what needs to be done," which puts at the very top government stimulation and creation of jobs (235). Stricker makes it clear that nothing is inevitable about capitalist development, and that economic forces have been and can be shaped to the benefit of different groups within American society.
Whether public policy shapes economic forces to help the rich or the poor depends upon their relative political power, and Cazenave believes the community action component of the 1960s War on Poverty did increase the political participation and empowerment of low-income Americans. He comes to this conclusion by closely analyzing the Mobilization for Youth (MFY), established in the late 1950s, and the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited-Associated Community Teams project (HARYOU-ACT), formed in the early 1960s. These two Manhattan-based community projects were influential precursors of the War on Poverty's Community Action Program (CAP), and Cazenave uses the former to trace the "rise, fall, and political legacy" of the latter (xi). Both projects focused on the problem of juvenile delinquency among low-income, inner-city youth, involved social scientists in analyzing the problem, and offered a range of social services, education, and job-training programs as a solution. Yet, they differed in certain key respects. Located on the Lower East Side with a mixed race population, MFY utilized the "opportunity theory" of sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin and considered necessary an expansion of opportunities and the ability to take advantage of opportunities among area youth, while HARYOU-ACT in Harlem, under the guidance of social psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, sought "community and racial self-determination" to counter the racial oppression and discrimination that limited the opportunities of young African Americans (103).
As a result, HARYOU-ACT called for community action from the project's start, while MFY took several years to adopt this tactic. For the planners of HARYOU-ACT, community action, including social protest, would overcome the political powerlessness and culture of poverty felt and lived by Harlem youth. The "sociotherapeutic effect[s]" of action would raise the low self-esteem of young African Americans, thus halting aggression and delinquency (97). Seeking "relevance" in the midst of intensifying African American civil rights activism, MFY began to engage in community action in 1963, supporting rent strikes, welfare rights organizing, and anti-police brutality efforts (119). By the mid-1960s--just as President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty--both MFY and HARYOU-ACT came under attack for the rhetoric and reality of poor people's militancy in their projects, presaging the hostility the War on Poverty's CAP projects would soon face. Even so, Cazenave argues, these efforts, together with the African American civil rights movement, empowered the poor and changed the political landscape of urban America.
On this point--the historical significance and political outcome of the Community Action Program--the two authors disagree, in keeping with their larger conflicting arguments of the War on Poverty's success or failure. Stricker agrees that the CAP projects fostered the political empowerment of poor Americans, but he emphasizes the limits of participation. Not only did the vast majority of CAP projects remain under the control of local politicians, but the most they could accomplish--albeit worthy goals--was to improve the social services and provide some employment in their communities. "Their power was limited, and so were their resources. Here was a war on poverty with empty guns," Stricker contends (76). Community action could not bring about the good jobs and income necessary to solve the problem of poverty; local participation could not target the national political economy that kept poor Americans jobless and impoverished. Cazenave does acknowledge this argument in his conclusion. "An important lesson of the U.S. experience with community action is that effective social reform for the racially and economically oppressed must go much deeper into the nation's political, social, and economic bowels than local community action alone can" (180). Yet, Impossible Democracy returns to and stresses what Cazenave sees as the positive political legacies of the community action projects, including the proliferation of community organizations that exist in the United States today. For Stricker, the failures are greater. He also points out that most effective community organizations were and are independent of government, challenging Cazenave's "impossible democracy" whereby federal funds fostered social protest in the 1960s.
The two authors do agree, however, on the important intersections of social science, politics, and public policy in the War on Poverty and later poverty policies and programs. By documenting the impact of social sciences such as Cloward, Ohlin, and Clark, along with officials in government and social welfare agencies, Cazenave convincingly argues that competition among elites profoundly shaped the design and implementation of social policy. In addition, as the social science theories undergirding MFY in particular were unproven, he challenges the idea that "public policy initiatives ... are products of objective scientific research" (39). Instead, he sees the work of social scientists as playing a legitimizing role for political proposals. This is precisely the argument that Stricker makes about conservative economists during the 1980s who supported "supply-side" economies, particularly tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that contributed to huge federal deficits and, in turn, justified cutting liberal social programs. As it turned out, supply-side economics was less an economic theory than a political ideology which gave "scientific" gloss to conservative pro-business policies. Both Stricker and Cazenave reveal the fallacy of "value-neutral" social science. (1)
Stricker and Cazenave also find common ground on the need to counter the "right-turn" in American public policy that has accompanied the conservative political ascendancy since the 1980s. For Cazenave, his effort to revisit and redefine the meaning and legacy of the War on Poverty's Community Action Program is part of challenging the Right's use of CAP as evidence of failure in support of "their claim that government-sponsored social programs don't work" (172). Such a challenge is crucial, given that this conservative claim contributed to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which ended the federal guarantee of public assistance for women and children, or ''welfare as we know it," in the words of then-President Bill Clinton, without solving the problem of poverty. While recipients left the welfare rolls for work as a result of welfare reform, they remained in poverty, due to irregular, low-paying employment. Similarly, like Cazenave, Stricker aims to revise popular and political understandings of the War on Poverty's failure. But rather than argue for success, Stricker demonstrates that failure was inevitable, given that the poverty war did not include the public job creation necessary to end poverty and unemployment. In this way, the War on Poverty was declared but never fought, indicating the "conservatism of liberalism" (61).
For scholars, neither argument is particularly new. Positive outcomes have been found in failed War on Poverty programs before, and the rejection of job creation by 1960s poverty planners and Johnson administration officials has been oft-criticized. Yet, these arguments bear repeating when many Americans cannot see the efficacy or utility of political participation and the state in an era of rapid and seemingly inevitable economic change and globalization. Both authors understand that politics matter. Whether it is confirming the importance of full democratic participation when only forty percent of the poor vote in contrast to seventy-four percent of "the investor class," according to Stricker (243), or reminding us that the persistence of poverty and economic inequality in the United States is the result of political choices that have been made and can be unmade, both studies have contemporary relevance. In a world where global economic forces proceed untrammeled and unregulated, leaving behind many inside and outside the United States, the need to reassert the role of the democratic state in economic regulation and social provision is a point upon which both Noel A. Cazenave and Frank Stricker would agree.
(1.) This argument is made persuasively in Alice O'Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton, NJ, 2001).
University of Auckland
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