• U.S.

The Administration: The Poverty Plan

5 minute read

President Johnson declared his “war on poverty” last week with all of the martial fervor of a 12th century crusader. “On many historic occasions,” he told the Congress in a message accompanying his antipoverty bill, “the President has requested from Congress the authority to move against forces which were endangering the well-being of our country. This is such an occasion. Our objective: total victory.”

Johnson even referred to Sargent Shriver, who would head the $962 million program in a new Office of Economic Opportunity, as “my personal Chief of Staff.” And Shriver, already waging the war, although he still heads the Peace Corps, sounded equally militant in an address to the National Farmers Union in St. Paul. “This new program is not an election-year gimmick,” he said. “For the first time in man’s history we do have the power to eliminate poverty from an entire continental nation.”

That kind of passion rings bells among rank-and-file troops across the U.S., but the Administration’s first big battle is pinpointed on Capitol Hill. There, Johnson & Co. will have to explain to skeptical Congressmen precisely what they plan to do—and how. All last week Shriver and various Cabinet members trooped into sessions of a House Education and Labor subcommittee to explain the package. Since the causes of poverty are diverse and interrelated, any comprehensive attack on them is necessarily complex. The programs that the bill would permit certainly are that:

∙ JOB CORPS. About $190 million would be spent in the first year to find and train 40,000 boys, aged 16-21, who are illiterate, or too unskilled or ill-motivated to adapt to normal job training. The less competent half would go to rural camps for up to two years, learn the disciplines of manual labor on conservation projects, study rudimentary reading, writing, arithmetic and speech. The top half would be sent to unused military reservations for training in specific vocational skills and basic academic subjects. All would get a $30-$50 monthly living allowance and a separation payment of $50 for each month of satisfactory service. Insists Shriver: “These centers and camps will not be dumping grounds for juvenile delinquents, dope addicts or drunkards.”

∙ WORK TRAINING. Some 200,000 better-equipped boys and girls would get on-the-job training as nurse’s aides, clerks, typists and mechanics if local schools, hospitals, city governments and settlement houses made the jobs available. To induce local agencies to do so, the federal Government would pay 90% of the costs.

∙ WORK STUDY. Some 145,000 college students would be encouraged to remain in school through federal subsidies for part-time jobs to help them earn their way.

∙ COMMUNITY ACTION. The vaguest but potentially most effective program is a $315 million offering of grants to communities that develop their own antipoverty campaigns. The activities would require federal approval, but the program would rely heavily on local initiative and ideas.

∙ AID TO FARMERS. Since half of all U.S. poverty exists in rural areas, up to 45,000 farm families would get grants to buy stock or equipment to raise their income to minimum living levels. The idea is to keep farmers from joining the surplus of unskilled labor in the cities. Argues Shriver: “It is cheaper for the taxpayers to pay once to buy a low-income farm family a cow than to pay for milk for the children of that family day after day in the city.” A more controversial provision would set up nonprofit corporations to buy up large tracts of land, improve it for efficient farming, then sell the land in economically sized subdivisions to low-income families.

∙ VOLUNTEERS. Five thousand people would be recruited to work (much like Peace Corpsmen) among the poor at an unspecified living allowance and $50 per month separation pay. Half of the volunteers would be available to local agencies that request them (with the approval of the state Governor), half would be assigned to projects such as migratory worker groups, conservation camps and Indian reservations.

Johnson’s bill also calls for expansion of existing programs. There would be loans to new or expanded industries in depressed areas, loans to small businesses, literacy and vocational training for mothers who collect aid for dependent children, pilot projects to aid unemployed fathers.

The bill, in short, outlines a war plan that ought to warm the cockles of any social worker’s heart. But mighty crusades have an unhappy way of getting mired in the implementation. Cabinet officers who would be responsible for various aspects of the program insisted last week that the whole scattershot package could be properly administered without creating any wasteful new bureaucracy. Each was satisfied with the role assigned to his department, none resented the vast powers that would be handed to “Poverty Czar” Shriver. If the Administration can ever convince the Congress of that, the poverty war itself may prove to be a pushover by comparison.

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