Speech at the Conference on Women in the War on Poverty

Washington, DC | May 8, 1967

Why is it that you are not divided on the question of poverty? It is because poverty is not just a political question, nor a social question, nor a military question, nor a religious question. Instead it is a moral question – a question of the enhancement, even the preservation, of human life.

Six years ago today not one Peace Corps volunteer was at work anywhere in the world.

Six years ago less than one thousand, five hundred people volunteered to join the Peace Corps during the entire summer of 1961.

Six years ago several of the organizations represented in this room condemned the Peace Corps as a boondoggle guaranteed to do more harm than good.

Six years ago this month we opened a Peace Corps Training Center in the mountainous jungle area of Puerto Rico. The big question then was this:

Would we dare let girls attend this camp, sleep in barracks, participate in tough physical exercises like those at the infantry training school at Fort Benning, Georgia?

Would we dare let girls -- fresh from Vassar, or Peachtree Street in Atlanta, or from an idyllic Iowa farm, go out alone on a four-day camping trip (in the remote and dense rain forests surrounding this Puerto Rico training camp?

Most advisers said "no". There was fear that Congress would object -- fear of fatal accidents, fear of immoral activities, fear of objections from frightened parents.

None of these fears proved correct -- except the last. Parents did object. They objected violently to the camp, to the Peace Corps, to the very idea of sending their daughters thousands of miles away from civilization -- as they called it -- to remote spots in Latin America, Asia, and especially Africa. We took a poll at that time -- six years ago -- and it showed that 85% of fathers and 90% of mothers objected to their daughters serving in the Peace Corps.

No wonder we got less than 1,500 applicants in June, July, August, and September of 1961.

Yesterday VISTA gave me their current recruitment figures.

This year more than 120,000 have volunteered.

For the month of April more than 1,418 have volunteered.

VISTA and Peace Corps together this year alone -- in six months -- have received three times more applications for service than Peace Corps managed to inspire in its first two years! Volunteering has increased at least six-fold in these six years since we started the Peace Corps. I think it is fair to say we have been successful in getting people involved.

The issue today, however, is no longer involvement.

The problem of America now seems to be direction.

Which way should the civil rights movement go? Some say "toward violence"; some say "toward blackness"; some say "toward oblivion".

What direction should the war in Vietnam go? Some say escalate -- some say withdraw. Sincere men on both sides believe in their ideals.

What direction will the churches take? They have changed more in the past 10 years than in the first 2,000.

What political direction should the nation take? The Republican women are even split on which direction the republicans should go. Two days ago, they had a bitter fight to elect a leader. And the battle lines still haven't been closed.

Apparently, the more Americans get involved in the serious issues of the day, the less consensus they enjoy!

But there is an exception. We have an example of it here today. We have involvement and yet we have agreement on poverty.

You are all involved, and you are all agreed what direction that involvement should take.

This didn't happen by accident -- it happened because you wanted it to.

In this audience are Catholic and Protestant, Gentile and Jew, old and young, black and white, organizations that are 200 hundred years old and groups that are 200 days old, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, PhDs and grade-school dropouts. In all your diversity you are agreed on the necessity for fighting this war.

Why is it that you are not divided on the question of poverty?

It is because poverty is not just a political question, nor a social question, nor a military question, nor a religious question. Instead it is a moral question – a question of the enhancement, even the preservation, of human life.

You understand that trying to get the poor out of poverty is trying to nourish, reshape, re-inspire, almost, recreate life. And that's what being a woman is all about!

None of you is dissenting from that ideal.

None of you is gathered here to see what power you can gain for yourselves. You are here to find out what service you can give to others.

If you are searching for an ideal, you have come to the right city.

About a mile from here is Lady Bird Johnson -- the First Lady of America.

There is no woman in America whose interest in the poor is more evident or more inspiring.

She is the one who two years ago pledged her time and talent to an untried, unprecedented experiment. She is the one who has turned her energies -- and those of the people on her staff -- over to the job of alerting America to the problems of the poor. She has gone to Appalachia. She has visited and dedicated the first Job Corps Center for Girls. She has backed our movies on Head Start and VISTA. She has never failed to do all anyone could expect and more than anyone could ask,

Mrs. Johnson's devotion to the elimination of poverty has been followed by American women.

  • 50,000 women serve on local community action boards and advisory councils.
  • more than 160 community action agencies are headed by women as executive directors.
  • hundreds of anti-poverty programs have been administered successfully by women's organizations from small Head Start units to multimillion dollar Job Corps Centers.
  • more than 10,000 women volunteers from all religious and racial groups have served through WICS (Women in Community Services) in screening applicants for the Women's Job Corps.
  • more than 365,000 young women have participated in the Neighborhood Youth Corps.
  • more than 10,000 girls are headed for college -- or have already entered -- as a result of Upward Bound.
  • more than half of all VISTA volunteers have been women.
  • a total of 3,000 living and working with the poor.
  • more than 300,000 volunteers have served in Head Start.
  • many thousands more have served in a wide variety of other anti-poverty programs.

During today's program, you will be told what challenges are open to you -- to use your free time to free others from poverty.

Susan B. Anthony once said: "Modern invention has banished the spinning wheel, and the same law of progress makes the woman of today a different woman from her grandmother."

Looking around this morning, I can easily agree with Susan Anthony. Unlike women of 50 or 100 years ago, today's women have opportunities never dreamed of before.

I urge you to use this opportunity -- so that we will never have an America where children can't tell between a teddy bear and a rat.

In a military war, there is an expression: Seek out and destroy. But in our war against poverty -- which is a peaceful and compassionate effort -- we want to seek out and save.

We want to seek out and save every child in America who does not have enough bread for his body or enough love for his heart.

I urge you women to seek out and save every teenager in America who is a dropout from school or a holdout from society -- and get him in Job Corps, into the Neighborhood Youth Corps, or into local programs you may know of.

I urge you seek out and save every old person in America who has empty memories about the past and dim hopes about the future -- and enroll them in Foster Grandparents.

At next year's meeting -- which I hope we have and which I hope will be bigger than this year's -- it would be a great event if we could add up and tell the nation how many human lives we sought and saved.

In the war, they have a daily body count -- how many were killed? In our attack on poverty at home, let us have a body count on how many are saved.

We have enough statistics of death. We need statistics of life. Re-creating human life is the greatest vocation there is -- and it is yours!

Your work is not important because of the budget you have. Nor the size of the bureaucracy at your command. Nor the number of staff under you. That is the warped value-system of a warped organization.

Despite this record of participation and involvement we have only begun to scratch the surface.

Listen to these estimates of unmet needs –

  • with "Head Start" we are reaching only 30% of the poor children who need the program.
  • with our "Legal Services" bringing "Justice to the Poor", we are reaching only 20%.
  • with "Upward Bound", we are reaching only 6%.
  • with our Neighborhood Health Services, we are reaching only 4%.
  • with the Neighborhood Youth Corps and Job Corps combined, we are reaching only 32%.
  • with our adult literacy-program we are reaching only 5%.
  • with our adult job training programs we are reaching only 10%.

You can see from these statistics how large the need actually is. You can easily see why we have called you to Washington -- not solely to applaud what you have already accomplished -- not solely to enlist your support for our existing efforts. But, hopefully, to inspire you to new efforts.

How can you help -- now -- immediately?

  • summer programs, empty slots
  • Neighborhood Health Centers
  • Neighborhood Legal Centers
  • 116 Job Corps Centers
  • Half-way houses (YWCA)
  • tutoring programs
  • social work programs
  • creative localism

Washington's role is minor. Community action agencies develop their own programs; approval is at regional level. What needs to be done locally is done by the local people.

Eugene Patterson (won a Pulitzer Prize last week): "OEO has started a trend under which Federal money is placed directly into the hands of the lowest governmental agency able to do the job."

Roscoe Drummond: "The central fact of the war on poverty is that state, city and local governments have never exercised so much authority in administering federally financed programs."