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.
Then-Governor Richard Thornburgh, appropriately wanting to know what the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was getting responsibility for administering, asked the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs, tasked with that responsibility, to evaluate the network. Community Action found itself tagged among the worst CAA’s in the state. In June, 1982, Community Action was placed on probation, given funding through September, with continued funding contingent on correcting its flaws. The executive director resigned. At the June Annual Meeting, the board of directors announced that it would shut the agency down if funding was discontinued after September 30. The agency was able to recover following an extension to December 31.
The youthful staff elevated to management positions in the agency set about the path of rebuilding the agency. It closed neighborhood centers and laid off seven of its sixteen staff. In response to an economy in the deepest recession since the 1930’s (unemployment in the Lehigh Valley topped 12% in 1983), Community Action focused its work on creating a new safety net, including the Lehigh Valley Food Bank (now known as the Second Harvest Food Bank), energy-related programs, a drop-in center for functionally-disabled people in Easton and the Sixth Street Shelter.
Community Action also became more aggressive and outspoken in its advocacy work, pushing back on policies that put much more money in the pockets of those at the top of the economy while cutting almost every program designed to provide shelter from the storm for those at the bottom.
When the economy recovered, the manufacturing sector had been devastated, with major employers like Bethlehem Steel, Mack Trucks, Champion Spark Plug and Black & Decker heaving jobs while the garment and textile industries almost disappearing.
Meanwhile, the spoils of the recovering economy were being dispersed unevenly. The loss of manufacturing cost cities a disproportionate share of the tax base. Cuts in urban aid, including the Community Development Block Grant and housing subsidies and the elimination of the Urban Development Action Grant and revenue-sharing encouraged “white flight” and left cities with minimal tools to adjust.
The housing market was particularly distorted as rising prices left those whose skills in the new economy, dominated by services and information technology, especially challenged.
Community Action never was content with establishing programs that became a new social safety net, noting that charity is no substitute for economic justice, wherein jobs paid wages that enabled people to pay their own bills and not rely on hand-outs.
Community Action has, since it was started, innovated, instigated, and challenged itself and its community to make the community a better place for those left out. By the late 1980’s, Community Action had begun inserting itself into the effort to affect the broader economy, pushing affordable housing, homeownership, access to credit and other financial services like insurance, and promoting entrepreneurship.
The agency made a major push to improve homeownership opportunities that would help lower-income families build assets while strengthening neighborhoods in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, created neighborhood-based economic development corporations in the 1990’s to help prospective entrepreneurs become business owners, established a federally-certified community development financial institution in the late 1990’s, a housing development corporation and neighborhood revitalization projects known as Neighborhood Partnership Programs in the 2000’s.
Community Action’s community problem-solving efforts, or advocacy, have taken on a range of issues, with substantive, long-lasting results in many of those campaigns: led the campaign to pass a voter referendum creating an apartment licensing program in Allentown; organized the Green Future Fund, leading a campaign to pass a voter referendum that called for the counties of Northampton and Lehigh to spend $67 million for farmland and open space preservation as well as municipal parks; brought together community, housing and economic development groups to ensure bank mergers did not result in disinvestment, resulting in more than $800 million in community reinvestment; staffed the Lehigh Valley Coalition on Affordable Housing for 25 years that organized a variety of initiatives, from raising funds from suburban municipalities to support homeless shelters, educating the public by collecting data on homelessness and producing a public education video featuring Jack Coleman, to creating a down payment and closing cost assistance program; created RenewLV, a smart growth coalition; helped pass legislation raising the minimum wage, establishing the nation’s first-ever emergency mortgage assistance program at the state level and the first-ever, state-funded food purchase program for people in need of emergency food assistance.
Today, Community Action is an amalgamation of programs and separately-incorporated subsidiaries that, combined, employ nearly 100 workers with a total budget, counting the value of the food distributed by the Second Harvest Food Bank, of $23 million. It owns more than $8 million in real estate with barely $500,000 in debt, along with a fleet of straight trucks, a refrigerated truck, forklifts and cargo vans. Its administrative costs are consistently under 9% of the agency’s total annual budget.