Social workers and NASW played active roles in local, state and federal programs that arose from President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” initiative that he declared in 1964.
NASW Social Work Pioneer® Jack Hansan (photo below, right) was one of these social workers. Hansan’s close association with area civil rights leaders and elected officials in the early 1960s helped him become the first executive director of the Community Action Commission of the Cincinnati area.
Community action programs were at the heart of the Economic Opportunity Act, signed into law in August 1964, Hansan said.
The Cincinnati Community Action Commission was among the first to receive newly available federal Community Action funds in late 1964.
The grants helped to establish a series of preschool programs in five counties, as well as neighborhood centers, dental clinics and other programs, Hansan said.
“We worked with the community leadership to establish new and autonomous organizations operated and controlled by community people,” he said of how the centers were operated.
Hansan noted that the Community Action Commission did not compete with the city government, the welfare department, school boards or community chests.
“We tried to use the prospect of new federal funds to get the established agencies and governments to be more sensitive to the needs of the poor and responsive to their demands for services,” he said.
Many of the programs the commission started were copied by the Office of Economic Opportunity and made into national initiatives, Hansan said. For example, the Cincinnati Community Action Commission preschool program was the genesis of the national Head Start program.
“It was an exciting time. I loved it,” Hansan said. “It was great.”
In honor of the War on Poverty’s 50th anniversary, the following are excerpts taken from NASW News articles from that important era:
- November 1964: The News noted that passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Economic Opportunity Act from this year “were major legislative objectives of NASW.” The 1964 NASW Delegate Assembly included a special workshop for delegates entitled “Poverty – Social Work’s Business.”
- February 1965: The News included an “Operation Poverty” column, which noted that by the end of 1964, some 77 community action grants totaling more than $22 million had been awarded as part of the implementation of the Economic Opportunity Act. The grants, made to states, were aimed to help plan, develop and operate individual poverty programs in cities and rural areas and nonprofit organizations.An article said several federal organizations were directing anti-poverty programs and that NASW members in key agency positions consulted with NASW.
- August 1965: NASW produced the pamphlet, “The War on Poverty: How Can We Win It?” which aimed to challenge the thinking and actions on the part of social workers and others. It was disseminated to community leaders, members of Congress, and national health and welfare agencies. This issue also noted that NASW officials met with members of the association’s Federal Relations Committee and Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, to discuss future collaborations.
- November 1965: A special six-page section on “Social Workers in the War on Poverty” was featured. It provided a random cross-section of social workers making a difference in the battle to alleviate poverty. Examples included:
- Social workers in Spokane, Wash., helped produce a report that convinced city and county leaders of the need to develop a Community Action Council to address the area’s poverty conditions.
- In Mississippi, social workers helped a community leader promote the success of the Jackson Area Project Head Start program.
- Social workers involved in Project Upward Bound were highlighted in Honolulu, Hawaii.
- In Philadelphia, a social worker was making a positive impact as one of three coordinators working for the Philadelphia Antipoverty Action Committee.
- May 1966: The NASW Task Force on Poverty reported that it reaffirmed social workers’ “intent to elimination of want while calling the association to place primary emphasis on fighting poverty and or its relations with the Office of Economic Opportunity.” The NASW board of directors was launching a program where every national and local unit would be given a specific task in the anti-poverty effort.
- February 1969: As part of its Social Work Month campaign in March, NASW produced a public service message for TV networks and local stations that highlighted the plight of 15 million American children experiencing poverty. A pamphlet that viewers could obtain provided the stark facts on the extent of poverty in the U.S.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles about the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.