Saturday, October 9, 2010


In January of 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act. As President Lyndon Johnson attempted to assert his leadership in a country still grieving the loss of an assassinated John F. Kennedy, the War On Poverty was officially declared. In his State of the Union address, Johnson told the nation, “Many Americans live on the outskirts of hope. Some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join me in that effort.”
On the heels of some early success by the Peace Corps, VISTA, (Volunteers in Service to America) was created under the Office of Economic Opportunity. Initially, it sought to improve educational and vocational opportunities in disadvantaged communities. With the national poverty rate reaching 19%, VISTA was to serve as a domestic Peace Corps.
VISTA’s core philosophy was to send volunteers into the poorest communities in the nation equipped with organizing skills so that residents could help themselves. Working behind the scenes was encouraged. Political visibility was considered political vulnerability. Remaining invisible, as an agent of change was always a primary goal. While most states from Alaska to Louisiana appreciated these federal programs, some did not. VISTA Volunteers were not welcome in Mississippi or Alabama and a number of individuals and projects were expelled from communities in other states where local leadership felt no additional attention to living conditions or community services was necessary. To my knowledge, a number of VISTA volunteers were threatened, assaulted, raped, and otherwise harassed or intimidated throughout their tenure. Still, with an undeclared war in Vietnam raging, many people, from recent college graduates to recent retirees volunteered to serve their country. Their motives were varied. To be sure, there were also college dropouts and war resisters. There were religious do-gooders and bleeding hearts. Conversely, a few compassionate conservatives found themselves intrigued with the possibility of spending at least one year of their life living and working in difficult conditions because they believed they could make a difference as well.
After President Johnson talks heart to heart with the American people about the lives of the poor, a Civil Rights Act soon follows. By the end of the year, in December of 1964, the first group of 20 VISTAS poses for a photo op with the President on the eve of their training. Lyndon Johnson tells them, “Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor will often be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man.” Ironically, amid the dark clouds of Vietnam, hope for the poor appears on the horizon.
Two factors emerged which, in my view, sealed the deal for recruiting VISTA volunteers. First was the appearance of The Other America, by Michael Harrington. First published in 1962, its disquieting contents were familiar to both Kennedy and Johnson. They had not only read the book but both witnessed first hand many of the conditions as they campaigned for the presidency. In this seminal text, Harrington explored the “culture of poverty.” His research lifted the veil on America’s underclass and exposed a vicious circle of malnutrition, unemployment, and poor education, as well as the psychological roots of poverty in the world’s most powerful democracy, with the world’s highest standard of living. The book was widely read during the 1960s.
The second factor was a media event witnessed by millions of people at the same time. Shortly after a Life Magazine photo essay on poverty in America, CBS Reports, a series of news specials, aired a program called Hunger in America. This hour long documentary, narrated by Charles Kuralt and David Culhane, depicted the failure of government food programs and spotlighted living conditions in four areas of the nation: Appalachian poverty in rural Virginia, an Alabama sharecropper family, a Mexican-American barrio in San Antonio, Texas, and a Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Red, white, black, and Latino communities were featured. The program won the prestigious Peabody Award and has since become a classic of cutting edge TV journalism. In its aftermath, Congress allocated an additional $200 million dollars for food programs and the Senate initiated an official inquiry.
Sitting in a dark living room, I watched the initial broadcast of Hunger In America. Having read the Harrington book a month or so earlier, I was familiar with the underlying socio-economic conditions and causes of poverty. I was not prepared for my emotional reaction. Like the photo in Life Magazine I’d seen of a black child in a south Chicago slum eating cracking plaster off a wall because he was hungry, this program was stark and disturbing. In Appalachia, a pallid young mother holding an infant sits for an interview with the reporter:

Did the baby have breakfast this morning?
What did the baby have for breakfast?
What will the baby have for lunch?
Will the baby have dinner tonight?
In the background sits a fairly new model portable TV. From Harrington’s research, I understand the paradox. Americans are experts at masking their poverty.
In San Antonio, a trio of children who have only eaten tortillas and beans for weeks scrapes together a small handful of change from collecting bottles. They run to the corner store and spend their fortune on candy. Small wrapped treasures consisting of sugar and corn syrup. They hoard it. They turn their back on one another as they quickly consume the fleeting treats. I know the psychology of their behavior.
The final scenes show the severity of malnourished Navajos. The narrator explains the high rate of diabetes; the diet of fry bread and not enough protein is almost to epidemic proportions.
After the program ends I am crying. I’m pissed off that I am crying, but my anger and my compassion have merged. Still struggling with the recent loss of my mother and then a good friend in Vietnam, I let the tears flow. OK, I tell myself, my government is at war, and I choose to fight the enemy at home. Within a week, I meet with a VISTA recruiter on the UCLA campus. I fill out the forms and sign on the dotted line. I wait. Before my final quarter ends both Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy are assassinated. In June of 1969, I receive an invitation and a one-way airline ticket to Austin, Texas. I have just turned 22, and am ready for life after college. I am a volunteer in service to America. This is the story of my life as a warrior in my country’s other war, the one officially declared on poverty.

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