President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a “War on Poverty” in 1964 that took form in an omnibus poverty bill (S. 2642) that was enacted as the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA, Public Law 88-452). It was the first major policy proposal from the Johnson administration, but it included several elements that had been considered previously by Congress. It established national government programs for job training, adult education, migrant worker assistance, and small-business loans. It resulted in specific entities including Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the Job Corps, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, Head Start, and Community Action Agencies (CAAs). The act established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) as a unit in the Executive Office of the President, thereby engaging that institution and the presidency directly in the administration of governmental service programs.
Most congressional Republicans hotly resisted the bill. They condemned the proposal as a hodgepodge of duplicative programs, an enlargement of national government authority at the expense of state and local governments, and wasteful spending for expanded bureaucracy during an election year, but the legislation passed easily. The Senate passed the bill 61–34. In the House, Republicans sought help from southern Democrats to defeat the bill, but the administration accepted a proposal to give state governors a veto power over community action projects, thereby accommodating most of the Southerners. Thus amended, the House passed the bill with support from all 144 northern Democrats and 60 of 100 southern Democrats. The final vote was to 226–185.
By 1968 there were 1,600 CAAs engaged directly in aiding the poor and unemployed. According to the act, the clients of services were to have “maximum feasible participation” in the poverty program planning. Increasingly, such programs came into conflict with state and local agencies and politics.
Under the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, parts of the act were reduced in scope and assigned to other departments. In 1974 the Ford administration dismantled the OEO. In 1981 Congress and the Reagan administration rescinded EOA and created a block grant system for poverty assistance that consolidated 200 federal programs and increased the discretion and authority of the states in administering poverty services. Under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, the Office of Community Services provides the Community Services Block Grant. It supports the institutional operations of a state-administered net work of 1,100 agencies, predominantly CAAs, which deliver services to low-income Americans.
Congress and the Nation (Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1965); and Meg Power, Gretchen Knowlton, and Maggie Spade-Aguilar, Community Services Block Grant Statistical Support FY 2000: Executive Summary, July (Washington, DC: National Association for Community Block Grant Programs, 2002).