- Impossible Democracy: The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty Community Action Programs, and: Why America Lost the War on Poverty—and How to Win It
Frank Stricker and Noel A. Cazenave have written two very different books about the U.S. federal government's War on Poverty in the 1960s. Historian Stricker employs a broad view, examining poverty, public policy, and politics over half a century, and declares the War on Poverty a failure, while Cazenave, a historical sociologist, focuses on two 1960s community action projects in New York City that preceded and influenced the War on Poverty and finds "unlikely success." Despite these contrasting approaches and conflicting arguments, Stricker's synthesis and Cazenave's case studies together provide a picture of the recent American past that challenges current popular and political, if not scholarly, understandings of the first and only time in history Americans sought an end to poverty. These books also reassert the role of politics and the state in dealing with economic forces and developments, a welcome reassertion in an era of increasing economic insecurity and globalization.
Stricker's synthesis demonstrates the persistence of poverty and the inadequacy of public policies aimed at dealing with it from the 1950s into the 21st century. Despite unprecedented economic growth and productivity, at least eleven percent of the U.S. population, and often more, have lived in poverty during this period of time. Stricker locates the causes of poverty primarily in unemployment, part-time employment, or poor-paying jobs and attributes these conditions to capitalism and market forces, rather than to individual problems or group failings. Utilizing a Marxist perspective, he argues "unemployment is normal for capitalism" and benefits individual capitalists by controlling workers [End Page 831] and suppressing wages (4). In opting for a structural, and not an individual or cultural, analysis of poverty, he departs from and criticizes the liberal War on Poverty in the 1960s, which focused on blocked opportunities to employment among poor Americans due to inadequate education and job training, as well as conservatives in the 1980s, who blamed impoverished Americans not only for their joblessness but also their dependence on liberal welfare programs. With this understanding of the causes of poverty, Stricker makes a strong argument for the necessity of public job creation to solve the problem of poverty.
What is most powerful about Stricker's overview is how he consistently presents the political and economic decisions that have sustained poverty over a half century, from the War on Poverty when politicians and policymakers ostensibly sought to eradicate it, to the subsequent war on the poor when they undermined welfare benefits and other social services and, at the same time, maintained unemployment levels as a curb to inflation and benefit to business. This overview demonstrates that the U.S. federal government has the authority and resources to act decisively in the economic arena, and Why America Lost the War on Poverty—and How to Win It ends with a list of "what needs to be done," which puts at the very top government stimulation and creation of jobs (235). Stricker makes it clear that nothing is inevitable about capitalist development, and that economic forces have been and can be shaped to the benefit of different groups within American society.
Whether public policy shapes economic forces to help the rich or the poor depends upon their relative political power, and Cazenave believes the community action component of the 1960s War on Poverty did increase the political participation and empowerment of low-income Americans. He comes to this conclusion by closely analyzing the Mobilization for Youth (MFY), established in the late 1950s, and the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited-Associated Community Teams project (HARYOU-ACT), formed in the early 1960s. These two Manhattan-based community projects were influential precursors of the War on Poverty's...