While Lyndon Baines Johnson is the president who signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law in August, 1964, there was considerable pressure to enlist the federal government in the effort to take on poverty well before President Johnson signed the law. Johnson’s predecessor, John Kennedy showed tepid support. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was probably best known for pushing an anti-poverty agenda, along with Michael Harrington, the author of The Other America.
When the bill was passed it required local communities to take formal action to call on the federal government to commit resources at the local level to join the War on Poverty.
The Lehigh Valley Community Council, a United Way-funded human services planning agency, accepted the challenge of vetting the idea. The Council seized the opportunity and, in December, 1965, the Community Action Lehigh Valley was established.
The early years were marked by many high-profile fits and starts, wins and losses, things to celebrate, things to try to forget. In the process, though, Community Action played leadership roles in establishing Lehigh Valley Legal Services (now known as North Penn Legal Services, Head Start (now known as Community Services for Children), Neighborhood Youth Corps (now known as CareerLink), several neighborhood centers and more.
By the late 1970’s, structural changes in the American economy, including a declining manufacturing sector, inflation caused by deliberate manipulation of oil supply and, therefore, prices, the entry into the economy of the largest population boom in American history and the rise of other Western nations’ economies, Americans who were finding it more challenging to get a piece of the American pie began losing enthusiasm for paying for the “welfare state.” Thus, the 1978 and 1980 elections ushered in a long-running era of more conservative policies in dealing with the effects of an economy that was widening both income and wealth disparity in the American economy.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in November, 1980, conservatives pushed for dramatic reductions in most social welfare programs. While no domestic spending initiative was spared from proposed cuts, the Reagan Administration was particularly intent on killing Community Action Agencies, Legal Services and the VISTA program, proposing completely eliminating their funding. Congress pushed back and a compromise was reached: core funding for CAA’s would be cut by 25% and the balance turned over to the states to administer. The resulting block grant was called the Community Services Block Grant.