50 years ago, our nation declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” Through the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, signed on August 20, 1964, a wide variety of programs, initiatives and structures were set up to provide low-income citizens the opportunity to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
Community Action Agencies (CAAs) were created by that law. They were created with a unique design and concept. Locally-controlled, independent organizations, with governing bodies representing all the facets of local communities (including low-income people themselves), would determine how to fight poverty on the local level. And the federal government would provide the resources. As President Johnson said in 1964, Community Action is
“… based on the fact that local citizens best understand their own problems, and know best how to deal with those problems. These (agencies) will be local … striking at the many … needs which underlie poverty in each community, not just one or two. Their components and emphasis will differ as needs differ. (CAAs) will (call) upon all the resources available to the community – federal and state, local and private, human and material. The most enduring strength of our nation is the huge reservoir of talent, initiative and leadership which exists at every level of our society. Through the Community Action Program we call upon this, our greatest strength, to overcome our greatest weakness.”
That all still holds true today. Sixteen Community Action Agencies in Wisconsin, as well as 3 statewide single-purpose agencies, help hundreds of thousands of low-income individuals each year to fight poverty and work towards economic self-sufficiency. Last year alone, Wisconsin’s Community Action network served 298,302 low-income individuals with a wide variety of support: job training, Head Start, skills development, housing, weatherization and energy bill payment assistance, transportation, food security … and the list goes on. In doing this, Community Action brought into local communities over $195 million in resources, almost a quarter of which was local and/or private funding.
Throughout our history, due to the locally-controlled nature of our member agencies as well as the commitment to helping people help themselves, programs have changed and new strategies have been implemented.
Since 1989, WISCAP has received funding from the state for its member agencies to help low-income entrepreneurs start their own businesses. We were on the leading edge in the late ‘90s on a new approach to low-income energy services; because of the public benefits program which came out of those efforts, Wisconsin’s low-income weatherization program is one of the most successful and largest, on a per capita basis, in the nation. Since the mid-00s, our member agencies have been providing skills enhancement services to underemployed low-income workers – and seen dramatic improvements in both wages and availability of benefits.
Our individual member agencies are the source of this innovation, continuing to this day to develop new approaches to fighting poverty. A new booklet, “Fighting Poverty Through Innovation”, highlights innovative programming in each of our member agencies – programming which is successfully meeting local needs with local partnerships, all brought together by the CAA. You can find this booklet here:
It has become cute to say, in these agitated times, that “we fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” Well, that clearly is not the case, as one can see by the examples set by Community Action. The fight to provide opportunity, to give low-income persons the tools they need to achieve economic self-sufficiency goes on, as passionately as ever.
40 years ago, when Wisconsin’s Community Action Agencies formed WISCAP, it was with the intent to provide a statewide voice on issues of poverty – to provide a source for training, information and education of member agencies – but also to help educate the public on the realities of poverty and to stimulate debate on the best strategies to fight poverty.
Poverty is not a partisan issue; opportunity for all Wisconsin’s citizens is not a partisan issue; Community Action is not a partisan issue. As WISCAP commemorates 40 years of service to Community Action in Wisconsin – and to the thousands of individuals and communities our network serves – we also look forward to working in the months and years ahead on low-income issues and on ways to help all of our citizens achieve economic self-sufficiency.