Address at the Citizens Crusade Against Poverty Conference

"And that is why to achieve “the more perfect union” promised by our Constitution, we need the participation of all Americans -- rich as well as poor. Otherwise we have no social contract fair or unfair...No one can protect the citizenry against itself, but itself. And that is why this ‘must be, in the broadest sense, a citizens’ War Against Poverty.
Washington, DC • April 14, 1966

I’m not sure whether I’ve been invited here for lunch or as lunch. But for those who I know you have got the grill and I’m the hamburger -freshly ground yesterday and ready to be cooked today.

But actually, I came -- at your invitation -- because in the process of voicing your concerns and your grievances, there are some things about the poverty program -- true things -- facts -- which we tend to lose sight of.

All of us have worked too hard to be willing to let only our dissatisfactions stand as the total picture of the poverty program.

And when I say our dissatisfactions, I mean just that: mine as well as yours. Nobody who has seen poverty can be satisfied until it is eliminated. We knew when we started we did not have enough money to do the whole job in one month, or in one year, for all the 32 million Americans who are poor. But it would have been foolish indeed to wait to start until we had enough money, or staff, or knowledge.

Yes -- I am dissatisfied. But I am not ashamed at what has been done. Nor do I apologize to anyone here or elsewhere about this program. The poverty program is coming to a time of verdict -- a national verdict. The American people -- all the American people are ‘sitting in judgment on our program.

Each night they watch American boys die on their television screens. Two weeks ago, I was at the Air Force Academy and one of the questions uppermost in their minds was are the funds we are spending in the War on Poverty increasing the likelihood that they might die? Each one of them was coming to a silent verdict on that. The American people are coming to a verdict on that -- all the American people -- 198 million of them -- not just the 32 million poor.

And the Congress which is examining the poverty program now and deciding whether to continue it whether to expand it, -- whether to cut it, -- is reaching a verdict too. And there are some things then that ought to be said here as part of the record if the poverty program is to get a fair hearing, and a fair shake, from the American people and the American Congress.

Too much has been done -- done by you, and done by others, to be forgotten or dismissed lightly.

What are those things that have been done? Here are some:

First, we have started a movement. No one can stop it! OEO can’t! The Citizens’ Crusade can’t, and you can’t, even if you wanted to.

But let us not forget who started this movement. I didn’t. And you didn’t. And neither did the Citizens’ Crusade. Lyndon Johnson proposed it, and the U.S. Congress authorized it. And the American people have endorsed it -- rich Americans, prosperous Americans -- just as much as poor Americans.

Mayors and Governors have endorsed it and so have social workers and religious leaders -- just as much as the poor. And we’re not going to have a total war against poverty without help from everybody. We’re getting that help. And that’s why this movement will not be stopped.

The words of the neighborhood block worker here in Washington, D.C., who said:

“While I been working on this program, I been reading the newspapers for the first time in my life. And I’ve been looking at things. And I been thinking. And my eyes are open now: And they’re never going to be shut again.”

That’s what I hope we have started -- all of us together.

Second, we have reached -- and helped -- a great many poor people. You know that.

  • 776,000 children in Head Start.
  • 25,000 kids in 97 Job Corps centers, today 44,000 altogether
  • 530,000 in Neighborhood Youth Corps
  • 125,000 in Work Experience Programs
  • 3,600 poor teenagers in Upward Bound programs getting ready for college, plus 25,000 who will be in Upward Bound this coming summer
  • 600,000 new jobs -- for the poor

And we’ve done more than that -- we’ve prodded other agencies into moving and helping poor people -- we’ve pointed out the needs. We’ve banged on some doors too. And because of our coordination power, we’ve gotten other agencies to chip in too. Let me give you one example:

In the past 90 days because of OEO, the Federal Government has approved a series of crash programs for Mississippi. As a result, today – as we eat this luxurious luncheon, your government is feeding surplus commodity food to over 500,000 hungry people, one out of every four in the State of Mississippi. It is giving “literacy training” to 8,800 people, “job training” to over 30,000, and pre-school education to 9,135 children.

During the 18 months we have been in operation -- only a year and a half -- we have funded over $32 million in programs for Mississippi. Over $24 million has been approved in the last six months.

And don’t forget, this is. Federal money going into a State where the original experts told us we could never get any program going -- because the Governor could veto them -- and everybody said he would veto it -- he’d keep the poverty program out. They said that no integration was possible in Mississippi or Georgia or Arkansas, etc. We’ve proved them wrong.

Third, we have established the principle that poor people should have a say in the programs and services which affect and shape their lives. You know yourself that, two years ago, if you had walked up to the head of your Community Chest Agency, or your Legal Aid Agency, and said that the poor should be represented on the Boards, they would have thought you were out of your mind. Today, if you say that, some of them will look at you guiltily or embarrassed, and some of them will say: “You’re right!”

That’s different from two years ago - a lot different! And this idea was our idea -- the government’s idea -- not anybody else’s.

This program has helped to teach this nation a lesson in democracy -- a lesson that will stick. And that lesson says that democracy doesn’t just stop with a vote! Democracy has to go all the way through our society -- from the way that we plan our programs to, the way we staff and run them -- that goes for education, for job training, for job placement, for legal services, for consumer education, for pre-school education. That principle is sinking deeper and deeper, broader and broader. And it will continue to spread and spread.

Fourth, we’ve begun to help people realize that controversy and criticism isn’t all bad. That you’ve got to have controversy and criticism if you’re going to achieve progress. But if you think that’s safe or popular, politically, you’re wrong.

Dollar per dollar, we’ve generated more controversy and criticism or more press coverage -- than any domestic program in recent history. Never have so many been paid so little to talk to much! And I don’t mean ME!

For any charge you can think of, there’s somebody else who has accused us of doing just the opposite. As a member of this Administration, I am running the most successful “non-consensus” in Washington.

Except that there has emerged consensus on one point -- that poverty must be eliminated.

You know how you can tell! The very people who this year say we’re not reaching enough poor people are the ones, who said two years ago, that there weren’t any poor people to reach.

Fifth, we’ve made breakthroughs in the deep South where everybody predicted we would never even be permitted to operate.

Head Start during the first summer, integrated more school districts in the South than were integrated in the ten years after Brown V. Board of Education.

We’ve only made inroads -- beginnings -- but they said it couldn’t be done. But it has been done. True it hasn’t been enough. But saying that, doesn’t cancel out what has been done.

Today, in programs run with OEO funds, we see the first Negro “white collar” workers, in some state agencies. We see Negro and white Board members of Community Action programs sitting down to talk for the first time. And just yesterday, some of the officials from “Project Star” were down to tell me that of the 32 Board members of Star, 15 had just been elected by the trainees, by the students. All of those elected were poor. And all of them were Negro. Twenty months ago that would have been unbelievable in Mississippi, and in many other places. But today it’s a fact!

Take the religious issue -- the church-state issue.

Just three or four years ago, it was practically impossible for a federal agency to give a direct grant to a religious group.

People said that there was that “wall between church and state.” But we said that wall was put there to keep government out of the pulpit, not to keep the Clergy away from the poor! That wall protects belief and even disbelief! It does not exclude compassion, poverty, suffering, injustice. That is common territory -- not exclusively yours, or mine -but everybody’s! With no wall between! And so we said, “Reverend Mr. Jones, or Father Kelly, or Rabbi Hirsh,” if you’re not afraid to be seen in our company, we’re not afraid to be seen in yours, because we are all about our Father’s business!

So -- as of today -- we have given hundreds of grants to religious institutions or religiously affiliated organizations to run poverty programs without violating the principle of separation of Church and State.

In doing so we’re fulfilling the mandate of Congress -- expressed in the law establishing our OEO -- to mobilize “all the resources of the nation.” And all denominations are working together. In San Antonio, Texas, a Jewish synagogue rented a hall to a Lutheran church group to conduct pre-school classes for kids from a predominantly Catholic area!

Take the birth control issue. Eighteen months ago practically no public official could discuss it in public. Today, our agency, OEO, is the first agency in the history of the Federal Government to give public money directly to private agencies for family planning purposes. We’ve been doing it for a year. We’re still the only one. We’ve been reproached by some religious organizations for doing it at all, and we have been criticized for the careful and precise criteria we established to prevent abuse. So far we appear to have done it in a way which avoided arousing the sensitivities or religious convictions, in such a way as to block the program altogether.

Let’s turn for a second, to that hot political issue -- the Governor’s veto. As of midnight last night the 50 different Governors had been standing behind us for 18 months calling “safe or out.” They’ve had over 9,000 chances to say “no.” And only six times have they used their veto.

And I did some figuring -- some long-division -- coming here. And I figured the percentage and suddenly realized: We’re purer than ivory soap!

These aren’t dollar achievements, but two years ago, no one could have bought them with the entire federal budget!

And there are other divisions -- deep spiritual divisions -- which are slowly healing. That’s what the issue called involvement of the poor is really all about!

We believe that involvement of the poor is our way, and Congress’ way of saying that the poor are not second class citizens. The poor have a right, a human and a civil right, to participate in shaping their own destiny.

We believe that to listen to criticism, and to respond to the needs of the people, especially the poor and the helpless, is the heart of democracy -- not to listen undermines democracy.

The American Revolution began with the cry: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

Today, that slogan might be broadened to read: -- Education without representation is tyranny. Welfare without representation is tyranny. Housing, counseling, legal services, consumer education -- without representation are tyranny. And, above all, poverty programs without representation are tyranny!

We’ve made a beginning too -- a good beginning. And our performance, our results, have inspired other organizations to follow our example.

4,008 representatives of the poor now sit on Community Action boards. From those representatives, OEO has drawn members of a national advisory committee of community representatives to make sure that that voice of the communities reaches directly to Washington. Numerical representation on boards of directors is not enough. The job of securing authentic and viable involvement of the poor is difficult; no one knows all the answers! But we do know one fact: everybody claims to represent the poor, to guide the poor, to lead the poor.

Maximum feasible participation is not the simplest phrase in the world to interpret or to implement. Those of you who were here last night until two and three in the morning know that. But those difficulties don’t lessen OEO’s responsibility to try and keep trying -- over and over again -- to comply with the letter and the spirit of that phrase.

We need your help in implementing that phrase. We have to give it life and meaning. And we face a terrible and frightening dilemma, if working together, we don’t succeed in implementing it fully. 

The discontent of the poor is explosive. The poor are dissatisfied - deeply dissatisfied. And in enacting the poverty program this society said that the poor have a right to be dissatisfied in this rich nation of ours. It’s like the discontent of labor union members who want higher wages and shorter hours. Like members of a union, the poor may not get all they want as fast as they want. But the reason that labor union members are willing to settle for less than what they want is because they feel fairly represented -- because they feel they got the best deal they could.

That’s why they are willing to live with a less than perfect contract until the next time for negotiations comes around.

Well, we are asking the poor to live under a social contract! That contract is a contract with all 200,000,000 Americans.

This total American society can’t afford wildcat strikes in the industrial area, even less can it afford a wildcat strike on the entire social order -- and that’s what Watts was!

Therefore, these social contracts must be negotiated fairly if we are going to avoid wildcat strikes. And if we do avoid such strikes, it will be because the poor act with the same self-restraint that we expect of labor union members. But for that to happen, we must see the same concepts of fair representation, of open bargaining between equals applied to the poor.

  • Unless the poor believe that society is dealing with them fairly
  • Unless they believe that they have been represented fairly -- some of the main incentives for self-restraint will have been removed.

And that is why to achieve “the more perfect union” promised by our Constitution, we need the participation of all Americans -- rich as well as poor. Otherwise we have no social contract fair or unfair.

Alone, OEO cannot make maximum feasible participation work by itself anymore than government can make democracy work. No one can protect the citizenry against itself, but itself. And that is why this ‘must be, in the broadest sense, a citizens’ War Against Poverty.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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