- The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980
Although essential to the political, social, and economic narrative of United States history since at least 1964, the War on Poverty, according to Annelise Orleck, has been at least partially misunderstood by scholars, most of whom have accepted (or contributed to) the conventional wisdom that the most ambitious program from Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society was an abject failure. But, according to Orleck, such studies largely ignore the politicization and empowerment of the grassroots that manifested through local community action agencies all across the country. While federal administrators may fairly be faulted for failing to live up to their own call for maximum feasible participation among the poor, scholarship [End Page 221] that centralizes policy debates in Washington miss the various ways in which the War on Poverty shaped and fostered a generation of activists at the local level. In seeking to redress that historiographical shortcoming, Orleck and co-editor Lisa Gayle Hazirjian have organized a valuable collection of essays highlighting the “fierce, proud energy” that captures the spirit of the War on Poverty, “from the bottom up” (2). In their words, this book “is a story of how the poorest of the poor, despite daunting obstacles, transformed themselves into effective political actors who insisted on being heard” (2).
In addition to a passionate introduction and conclusion (both by Orleck), the book features sixteen essays divided into four parts. Two of the essays (by Wesley G. Phelps and William Clayson) focus on aspects of the War on Poverty in Texas, while a third (by Marc S. Rodriguez) argues for Tejano influence in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as part of a broader, national migration of Tejano influence through local community action agencies. A familiar theme runs through most of the book’s essays: bureaucrats, policymakers, and state and local politicians often fought against the inclusion of poor people in the planning and administration of local War on Poverty initiatives. Yet, despite those efforts, poor people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds from across the country refused to be ignored. By working through (and sometimes against) various community action agencies, the same disaffected and marginalized citizens for whom the War on Poverty was ostensibly designed, shaped their own destinies and achieved progress in their own communities, often despite Washington’s worst efforts. Such stories often came, predictably, from urban communities in the North, but also, as these essays show, from communities of all types from all parts of the nation. At the local level, the War on Poverty inspired grassroots action on health care, education, civil rights, and political inclusion. In identifying the War on Poverty as part of a larger spirit of civil rights agitation pervasive through the 1960s and 1970s, Orleck and Hazirjian have widened the scope through which future War on Poverty studies can be examined.
As a collection of essays, the book is generally successful, though it routinely blurs whatever boundaries are supposed to exist between objective scholarship and activist passions. Scholars may certainly be forgiven (or heralded) for caring about the plight of poor people, but a few of these essays are somewhat hagiographic in their adulation for community action organizers. Predictably, most conservatives are simultaneously demonized as agents of oppression. Ultimately, however, as these essays collectively argue that the War on Poverty was more successful than historians—and certainly most Americans—have commonly recognized, it makes a valuable and insightful contribution.