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Mike Harman: More on the War on Poverty

A Daily Mail editorial headline reads "Dispatches from the War on Poverty" and introduced a conservative analysis of the programs initiated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

A popular refrain is that the anti-poverty programs of the Great Society years didn't work.

I was there, and I can say that not only did many of the programs work, but that in some ways, poverty was permanently diminished.

The Daily Mail editorial does relate that the poverty among the nation's elderly dropped from 35 percent in 1959 to under ten percent in 2010. I think I can help illustrate how that happened.

I joined a Parkersburg area community action agency in 1971 that served a ten-county area of West Virginia. This was shortly after being ordered by my local draft board to perform civilian alternate service because I was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

The agency began by carefully defining the leading conditions and problems of poverty at the local level and the various cultural barriers and factors that either contributed to the problem or minimized or ameliorated the problem.

We then brainstormed many alternative approaches to ease the problems and settled on a plan using the most sensible of the proposed programs.

We developed a built-in evaluation process to check progress quarterly so we could adjust if things were running behind or not working.

I was assigned the task of coordinating special programs for low-income elderly. As a young man, my first year was quite challenging. Among our quandaries were "How do we recruit senior citizens?" The next question was, "What do we do with them after we recruit them?"

We started from scratch. Outreach workers went door to door, letting seniors know we were starting a new program and inviting them to a meeting. We offered transportation by volunteers to increase attendance.

We quickly discovered that if the meeting included a covered dish dinner and some singing, we'd get a better turnout. So I planned my local visits to correspond to the monthly covered dish dinners. I also learned that most West Virginians are reluctant to start the line to eat, so I took that role on myself.

We also made people aware of programs such as food stamps and State Supplemental Income assistance, and anything else we could identify that would help. Our local senior citizens aides received training so they could assist with applications if necessary.

We identified empty storefronts and other places where people could gather in a group, have a quilting frame, a kiln for ceramic crafts, and other social and recreational activities. Our local senior activity centers eventually became full-time senior centers with full-time staff as funds from the Commission on Aging grew.

We helped our seniors in each county to incorporate as non-profits, have local boards made up primarily of local seniors and operate independently of the local Community Action Agency. They are all operating as such today, several with new senior centers built with federal, state and local funds.

The poverty level of seniors in West Virginia has dropped significantly since those years.

Probably, more individuals qualify for Social Security and Medicare today than back then, since many more women have worked at a job than was the case among older women in 1971. But the aging networks and resources established by the anti-poverty programs 40 years ago are still paying dividends today.

Besides senior programs, we also started up a crafts program for younger women. Their crafts were sold by mail-order and by local shops and stores, providing supplemental income to many.

We started a seed and cannery co-op so people could grow and can vegetables for family use or for sale.  We started a pallet factory that rebuilt and sold used wooden shipping pallets to manufacturers and shippers.

I recall hearing often that the last thing people wanted was a handout. What we gave them was the means to get out of poverty by providing opportunities and a sense that "We can do this." We had success stories every year, as well as a few flops.

Maybe the reason we have poverty today is not because of the Great Society failures, but because we are not trying hard enough,

Harman, of St. Albans, is a retired public service worker.


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