War on Poverty a clear asset, despite opposition

Robert W. Shaffer
Robert W. Shaffer

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, calls the federal government’s War on Poverty a failure that made generations dependent on handouts.

Based on my organizational work in Eastern Kentucky in the late ’60s, I take strong exception to this grossly inaccurate assessment.

In 1968, working in the Cumberland Valley as a special technical assistant out of the Executive Office of the President in the War on Poverty, I organized a Community Development Corporation that today is known as the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation.

Over time, that corporation has been responsible for managing investment assets of over $275 million in more than 625 companies employing 18,000 people and providing more than $2.1 billion in salaries and wages.

To fully appreciate successes like this in the War on Poverty, we need to understand the forces that fought in opposition.

In 1967, I was selected as one of 20 specialists to find creative solutions to poverty in one or more of the 100 poorest counties in the nation. After reading Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” I accepted the job on the condition that I would be assigned to the Cumberland Valley, which included two of the 10 poorest counties in the nation.

The Office of Economic Opportunity had defunded a large grant to an eight-county Community Action Agency in the valley, because the board of directors had refused to comply with the grant requirement that the poor be involved in decision-making to the maximum feasible extent.

My job was to reorganize the area into single and multi-county agencies that complied with grant requirements. I was helped by earlier organizational efforts of the Council of Southern Mountains, led by Loyal Jones.

The work environment at the time was well described by Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. After spending some time in Eastern Kentucky, at the same time I was beginning my assignment, he reported finding: “a local power structure committed to perpetuating itself at all costs and unwilling to countenance the slightest improvement in the lives of the excluded for fear they would gain the confidence and the wherewithal to overturn the status quo at the ballot box.“

His findings were confirmed by the fact that the local leaders were so opposed to the significant involvement of the poor they were willing to risk the control of millions of dollars rather than sit down with representatives of the poor to make decisions regarding how those funds would be spent.

At community meetings throughout the region I asked, What do you need most? In every instance the answer was, “jobs and income.” I never heard anyone say, more welfare programs. I took them at their word, and when the Office of Economic Opportunity initiated a community-development investment program for corporations formed by community action agencies, I proposed that the Cumberland Valley agencies form a multi-county development corporation and apply for a grant.

They agreed and submitted a proposal for an operational grant. They knew their grant had to be approved by midnight on June 30, 1969, and were discouraged when that moment came with no word from OEO.

The next day they learned their grant for $368,359 was approved.

Sometime later I heard from the official who handled the grants what had happened that night.

He said he was sitting in OEO Director Donald Rumsfeld’s office arguing about our grant. Rumsfeld (who later served as U.S. defense secretary) had heard that the Republican governor of Kentucky, Louie Nunn — who was sympathetic with the politicians who had lost control — opposed the grant. He wanted to speak with Nunn before taking action.

He put in a call to Nunn and waited for a response. None came, and in the last 30 seconds he followed the recommendations of his staff and signed the grant.

If those 30 seconds had gone differently, none of the Community Development Corporation’s accomplishments during the last 48 years, including those achieved by Kentucky Highlands, would have been possible.

Robert W. Shaffer of Berea is a retired anti-poverty worker.