President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the War on Poverty during his State of the Union address. Â
The following message was sent out from Robert Stewart, Executive Director of RCAP (Rural Community Assistance Partnership)Â a national network of nonprofit organizations working to ensure that rural and small communities throughout the United States have access to safe drinking water and sanitary wastewater disposal. Â RCAP Solutions is one of the six regional partners within the RCAPÂ network.
LBJ, The Great Society and The Origins of RCAP
January 8, 1964 is perhaps a date in history that you may not be familiar with, but is one of utmost importance to RCAP and much of the work each of you do every day in support of rural communities. It was on this date 50 years ago that President Johnson declared in his State of the Union Address that:
“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.Â It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
While LBJ initiated an incredible number of programs collectively known as the â€œGreat Societyâ€, which I will note later, it was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, creating the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) that would eventually lead to the organizations that we know today as RCAPs. Under Title III of that Act, â€œSpecial Programs to Combat Rural Povertyâ€ were created to provide funding to rural families and communities; this assistance included loans that could be made to purchase land, improve the operation of family farms, allow participation in cooperative ventures, and finance non-agricultural business enterprises, while local cooperatives which served low-income rural families could apply for another category of loans for similar purposes. Community Action Programs were authorized under Title II leading to the creation of Community Action Agencies. Federal money was allocated to States according to their needs for job training, housing, health, and welfare assistance, and the States were then to distribute their shares of the Community Action grants on the basis of proposals from local public or non-profit private groups.
Within two years 1,000 community action agencies (CAA) had been established across America. One of these agencies, Total Action Against Poverty (TAP) out of the Roanoke Valley of Virginia, was chartered the following year. Like other CAAs, TAP was focused on helping poverty stricken individuals and families. However, they realized that to help families out of poverty conditions, community water and wastewater systems were required to provide essential services, protect the health of rural Americans and provide a foundation for economic development. These needs went beyond helping individuals to helping communities and to building community facilities. By 1968 TAP decided to expand its mission throughout the five adjacent counties by creating a new organization for these purposes and asking the OEO for support. Chartered as the Demonstration Water Project (DWP), this non-profit corporation received its first OEO grant in 1969. The success of this approach led DWP to approach OEO in 1971 to broaden its operations resulting in the award of a $6 million grant in 1972 to conduct a national program that then formed the National Demonstration Water Project (NDWP) on March 19, 1973 that included affiliates in five other states.
NDWP developed a program strategy involving field demonstration projects, research and publications, an information clearinghouse, provision of management and technical assistance and through the vehicle of the Commission on Rural Water (an ancillary group established by NDWP) a national alliance of concerned individuals and organizations to bring about needed changes and improvements in rural water and waste disposal services. Such awareness building was necessary since at this time millions of rural families were without community water and wastewater services. Between 1974 and 1978 NDWP spent over $9 million through its affiliates (which had grown by 1978 to 16 statewide affiliates and 35 special program agency partners) to improve or create water and wastewater systems in rural America. At this time NDWP funds were primarily for direct construction related costs.
In 1977 the Community Services Administration (CSA â€“ successor to OEO) provided a grant to NDWP to study and survey the possible role of CAAs in water and sewer development in rural areas. Virtually all of the CAAs indicated a dire need for additional services in this area and over half were already providing these services. Realizing that the extent of the needs required a revised model, NDWP embarked on an initiative to transfer expertise to intermediaries for local development projects. The first two regions identified where interest was strongest and where viable organizations were in place that could be trained to provide assistance in water and sewer matters were RHI in New England (later to become RCAP Solutions) and the Center for Rural Affairs (which later spun off this work to create the Midwest Assistance Program) . These agencies would provide consulting assistance to rural communities and use existing development funding instead of relying on direct project subsidies as was the original NDWP design.
NDWPâ€™s primary funding was transferred to the Economic Development Administration while CSA looked to expand the regional technical assistance model created by NDWP. From 1979 to 1981 CSA designated and funded four additional RCAPs: Virginia Water Project (now the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project); Rural Community Assistance Corporation, Great Lakes Rural Network (now WSOS Community Action Commission) and Community Resource Group along with RHI and MAP. CSA used a six-region geographic division of the country first developed by the Farmers Home Administration and funded these as the Rural Community Assistance Program. In 1981 CSA was abolished and its duties transferred to the Office of Community Services within the Department of Health and Human Service. In 1989 the six RCAP agencies reorganized NDWP as RCAP, Inc. with a new governance structure that survives to this day: a 12 member Board of Directors consisting of one representative from each region and six at-large members.
RCAP is You!
While the path towards the final development of RCAP was not a â€œshort or easy struggle,â€ it was an endeavor that has resulted in RCAP assisting and continuing to assist thousands of rural communities not only on water and wastewater needs but also in the areas of affordable housing, solid waste and recycling services, economic development initiatives and the creation of revolving loan funds for community development.
All of you who work for an RCAP are an enduring legacy of fifty years of struggle to alleviate rural poverty, to provide essential water and wastewater services, to create opportunities for affordable housing and home ownership, and to promote economic development. There is no more important way that you can dedicate your lives than by helping our fellow inhabitants of this great land in their attempts to provide a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. While your work to improve the living conditions and opportunities of rural Americans may not always be recognized, be assured that my appreciation for your dedication and your endeavors is boundless. RCAP and its employees constitute an organization and a force for good like no other; one that has a long history of success in its chosen field, one that draws its strength from the values, aspirations and resourcefulness of rural America, one that ensures that equal opportunity is paramount, one that is confident in its abilities, and one that is continually looking for ways to improve its range and delivery of services to those in need.
A Brief Digression – The Great Societyâ€™s Accomplishments
Not that I am an historian (I am a Texan!) but I wanted to simply remind everyone what one man, albeit the President, and Congress can accomplish. While everyone may not agree with or be supportive of what was accomplished in the five years LBJ was President, there is no denying the importance of this legacy on the United States. It is almost too easy to compare these achievements with that of our current Administration and Congress. I often wonder where our nation would be if the issues faced in those years were being addressed by our current Congress. But enough of all that, itâ€™s easier for the following legislation and programs created from 1964-1968 to speak for themselves and this list is by no mean exhaustive!
â€¢ Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968
â€¢ Voting Rights Act
â€¢ Economic Opportunity Act â€“ which created Head Start and VISTA in addition to what was described earlier
â€¢ Wilderness Protection Act
â€¢ Endangered Species Protection Act
â€¢ Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
â€¢ National Environmental Policy Act
â€¢ National Endowment for the Art and the Humanities
â€¢ Omnibus Housing Act, Fair Housing Act
â€¢ Stronger Air and Water Quality Acts
â€¢ Appalachian Regional Commission
â€¢ Elementary and Secondary Education Act
â€¢ Higher Education Act
â€¢ Expansion of Food Stamps
â€¢ Child Nutrition Act
â€¢ Public Broadcasting Act â€“ Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio
â€¢ Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act
â€¢ Creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Urban Mass Transit Administration
One final note (from this veteran) on LBJ: he was the first member of Congress to volunteer for service in WWII (sworn in on December 9, 1941) and was awarded the Silver Star while serving in the Pacific. While the Vietnam War was his ultimate downfall, I believe it is important to remember all the many accomplishments of LBJ, including those that led to the creation of what are now the RCAPs.
A Vision Fulfilled â€“ An Excerpt from LBJâ€™s State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964:
Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope–some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.
This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.
It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.
Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.
For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.
The program I shall propose will emphasize this cooperative approach to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.
Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them.
Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.
But whatever the cause, our joint Federal-local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists–in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.
Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.
We will launch a special effort in the chronically distressed areas of Appalachia.
We must expand our small but our successful area redevelopment program.
We must enact youth employment legislation to put jobless, aimless, hopeless youngsters to work on useful projects.
We must distribute more food to the needy through a broader food stamp program.
We must create a National Service Corps to help the economically handicapped of our own country as the Peace Corps now helps those abroad.
We must modernize our unemployment insurance and establish a high-level commission on automation. If we have the brain power to invent these machines, we have the brain power to make certain that they are a boon and not a bane to humanity.
We must extend the coverage of our minimum wage laws to more than 2 million workers now lacking this basic protection of purchasing power.
We must, by including special school aid funds as part of our education program, improve the quality of teaching, training, and counseling in our hardest hit areas.
We must build more libraries in every area and more hospitals and nursing homes under the Hill-Burton Act, and train more nurses to staff them.
We must provide hospital insurance for our older citizens financed by every worker and his employer under Social Security, contributing no more than $1 a month during the employee’s working career to protect him in his old age in a dignified manner without cost to the Treasury, against the devastating hardship of prolonged or repeated illness.
We must, as a part of a revised housing and urban renewal program, give more help to those displaced by slum clearance, provide more housing for our poor and our elderly, and seek as our ultimate goal in our free enterprise system a decent home for every American family.
We must help obtain more modern mass transit within our communities as well as low-cost transportation between them.
Above all, we must release $11 billion of tax reduction into the private spending stream to create new jobs and new markets in every area of this land.