New assault on poverty may also face a backlash

January 19, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

The three-part PBS documentary that concluded last night, "America's War On Poverty," raises interesting questions for the city. Baltimore just became one of six urban areas to receive a $100 million cash grant from the federal government to revitalize deteriorating neighborhoods. That money and an additional $225 million in tax credits for local businesses are supposed to trigger another $800 million in city, state and private funds.

Although city officials are careful not to say so, this new effort is very reminiscent of the anti-poverty effort that grew out of President Lyndon Johnson's vision of a Great Society. The money will be used for economic development in some of the city's most disadvantaged neighborhoods; for education and job training, crime control and community-based health care. Even the name of the program -- Empowerment Zones -- smacks of 1960s rhetoric. A goal of LBJ's Great Society, after all, was the "economic empowerment" of the disenfranchised.

But isn't that effort widely regarded today as a failure? Doesn't conventional wisdom now hold that government cannot just throw money at social problems and expect them to go away? Haven't we conceded that ours is not such a great society after all and that if we declare war on poverty again, we're likely to lose?

The answer to those questions is yes. But "America's War On Poverty," produced by Henry Hampton, the same man who did the award-winning documentary on the civil rights movement, "Eyes On the Prize," offers a different perspective on the Johnson years.

For one thing, we are reminded that the War on Poverty was very short-lived. LBJ declared war in 1964 and Congress set up the first of the anti-poverty programs the following year. But those federal decrees met with fierce opposition on the local level almost immediately. By 1966, Congress was dismantling some programs -- particularly those that sought to "empower" the poor -- and cutting funding on others. In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected to the White House, and the disembowelment of LBJ's Great Society was pursued in earnest.

"I think the documentary's perspective is very accurate -- our window of opportunity was very short," recalled Linwood Ivey yesterday. Mr. Ivey fought in the war on poverty almost from its declaration. He joined the city's Community Action Agency in 1965 as chief of neighborhood services for East Baltimore, and eventually he became head of Urban Services under then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

"We were trying to accomplish a very difficult task -- changing human behavior -- in an atmosphere of fierce opposition," Mr. Ivey continued. "Officials at every level, even the federal level, were trying to find fault, hoping we would fail so they could justify shutting us down. It was like a boxer climbing into a ring to fight five or six different opponents at the same time."

Nevertheless, the anti-poverty program scored some successes, Mr. Ivey said. Great Society programs helped hundreds of thousands of Americans move out of poverty and into the middle class. Entire communities were motivated to push for political change. Many of today's urban leaders owe their start to the empowerment efforts begun under LBJ.

Recalled Mr. Ivey: "As I look back, our biggest achievement was in creating this sense among people who had been locked out of the system that, 'I can do something. I can make a difference.'

"But even that worked against us. The more people we were able to lift out of poverty, the greater and more bitter became our opposition."

The conviction that the system can deliver for them is what is missing among many poor people today. And their lack of faith is understandable, given the backlash against the empowerment efforts of the Great Society.

That period of history holds a warning for the 26 members of "EMPOWER BALTIMORE!", the quasi-public board that has been set up to administer the empowerment zone funds. The board met for the first time yesterday.

Empowering the poor is a fine but volatile idea; too much success, too fast, can backfire. The war on poverty can quickly degenerate into a war against the poor.

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