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Economic Opportunity Act Celebrates 45th Anniversary

By Todd Lare
SCCAP Executive Director

This Act, the start of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, was signed into law 45 years ago on Aug. 20, 1964. It aimed to allow the most prosperous country in the world’s history to achieve its full economic and social potential by giving every individual the opportunity to contribute to the full extent of his or her potential.

“For so long as man has lived on this earth, poverty has been his curse,” Johnson said upon passage of this law. “On every continent in every age, men have sought escape from poverty’s oppression. Today for the first time in all history of the human race, a great nation is able to make and is willing to make a commitment to eradicate poverty among its people.”

The Act made it the country’s official policy “to eliminate poverty in the midst of plenty in this Nation by opening to everyone the opportunity for education and training, the opportunity for work, and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity.”

Bold and optimistic, the Economic Opportunity Act was never funded and implemented at a level necessary to achieve its ultimate goal of eliminating poverty. But it did create 11 new federal programs that have helped change the lives of countless numbers of people. These programs include some of the most important anti-poverty programs still operating today.

For instance, because of this Act, more than 200 children in Monroe County attend preschool every year at the South Central Community Action Program’s Head Start centers. This helps these children develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in the critical early years of school and helps their parents to gain employment and education.

Likewise, for more than 40 years, students from low-income families have received help in attending Indiana University and other colleges and universities through the Work Study program created by this Act.

In addition, the Act created Adult Basic Education, offered locally by the Monroe County Community School Corp., which helps more than 800 adults per year to improve their reading skills, get their GED or learn English as a second language.

And the Act created Community Action Programs that provide broad-based services to promote self-sufficiency among low-income individuals and families. The South Central Community Action Program serves more than 11,000 people per year in Brown, Monroe, Morgan and Owen counties.

On Thursday, Aug. 20, the community is invited to attend a celebration to recognize the local contributions of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. This event will be held at 1 p.m. at Monroe County United Ministries, the site of the first of Johnson’s War on Poverty programs in Bloomington.

Monroe County United Ministries, which will celebrate its 70th Birthday with an ice cream social and open house on Sept. 27, was called the Christian Center back in early 1965 when its board of directors and staff coordinated the community’s efforts to create Monroe County’s Community Action Program.

The leaders of that effort will be recognized at the Aug. 20 event, including Christian Center board president Florence Nebergall, who still lives in Bloomington, and director Marvin Jones, who passed away this summer in his hometown of Lexington, Ky. after a life defined by his commitment to community service.

Today, the War on Poverty isn’t over, but to the credit of all its soldiers over the past 45 years, we’re still standing and fighting for our communities.

“We are fully aware that this program will not eliminate poverty in America in a few months or a few years,” Johnson said in 1964. “Poverty is deeply rooted and its causes are many. But this program will show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens.”