- Measuring Great Society Impact:Bedford-Stuyvesant and Newark
Fifty years after the fact, the Great Society endeavor continues to grip the American social imagination. Lyndon Johnson's campaign to end poverty and social inequality by bringing the power of the federal government to bear is a monument to the faith that public action can improve quality of life and, moreover, should be used to do so. As such, the Great Society draws broad-stroke anti–big-government vituperation. Detractors damn Johnson's War on Poverty for having failed to end poverty: in Ronald Reagan's glib and devastating gibe, Americans "fought a war on poverty, and poverty won."
At bottom, what Great Society advocates and detractors are arguing about is how social-policy effectiveness should be measured. It is fair enough to ask whether a war on poverty did in fact vanquish poverty: Johnson's effort failed to extirpate the economic inequalities that are deeply structured in U.S. society. Yet that criticism indicts the program for failing at what it never attempted. True, in hindsight it is clear that victory against poverty required a federal commitment to types of job creation and economic redevelopment programs never included in the lengthy Great Society roster. But Great Society policymakers did not believe that the economy required restructuring in order to produce economic equity, a view made credible by the robust economic performance of the early 1960s. The magnificent U.S. economy could provide for all, so the thinking went; what was needed was simply to reconnect those who had been excluded.
Therein lay the task for national policy action. Initiatives like the Community Action Program (CAP), created by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and administered by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), sought to build [End Page 496] structures of civic participation that would connect marginalized communities with the thriving mainstream. Recent studies by Michael Woodsworth on Bedford-Stuyvesant and Mark Krasovic on Newark evaluate the impact of the War on Poverty in this community-building endeavor. Woodsworth's materials suggest the importance of preexisting community organization in shaping the outcomes of federal urban initiatives; Krasovic's suggest the power of the federal presence to create new forms of local community. Both studies concede that the federal effort was unable to alter inner-city economic outcomes permanently; both also raise questions about the impacts of federal community building.
Woodsworth tells the story of community development in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood from the late 1940s, when "juvenile delinquency"—the ur-issue of Great Society community-action policy—first emerged as a focus of activists' energies through the establishment, under Robert Kennedy's patronage, of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC) and the first decade of its effort at economic revitalization in central Brooklyn. Along the way, Woodsworth offers a concise history of Bedford-Stuyvesant itself, then thought of by outsiders as a "ghetto" wasteland. The area that emerges in his telling, however, is a complex and vibrant, if under-resourced, community. Bed-Stuy in this period comprised some 450,000 souls, its boundaries racially rather than geographically defined, and shifting outward as black newcomers flocked to Brooklyn. Solidly black, but hardly monolithic, the community included home-owning families with long histories in New York City; impoverished Southern newcomers—met with less than exuberant welcomes from their longer-tenured neighbors; and a contingent of West Indian strivers who made themselves prominent in Bed-Stuy political life and economic development initiatives.
Woodsworth's investigation works its way through several distinct phases of Bed-Stuy organizing. The years immediately following the end of WWII saw rising concern among social activists with the city's alienated and, increasingly, publicly obstreperous youth. One of Woodsworth's particular contributions is to show how concern with these social-policy issues burbled up more or less simultaneously from a...