Remembering the roots of the public safety net, doubling down on fighting poverty

Jan Demers

“Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham,
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lotta people, but it seems the good die young
But I just looked around and he’s gone.” *

The 1960s was a time of deep poverty and great innovation. It was a time when the federal government and ordinary citizens joined together to consciously change the trajectory of poverty. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby took note of the crushing conditions in some southern states where infant mortality, malnutrition, and low academic scores showed the face of racial and economic inequity. They resolved to make a change.

“Has anybody here seen my old friend John,
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lotta people, but it seems the good die young
But I just looked around and he’s gone.” *

After the assassination of President Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the torch to pave the difficult way for the Great Society and the War on Poverty in 1964. That brought about the creation of Medicare and Medicaid through an amendment to Social Security. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 was initiated. The Civil Rights Act was birthed in 1964 as was the Economic Opportunity Act. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed in 1965.

“Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin,
Can you tell me where he’s gone?” *

It was from the Economic Opportunity Act that the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity and Community Action Agencies came into being. Head Start, Weatherization and other programs were created to mitigate the effects of poverty. The act enabled programs such as Job Corps, VISTA, and Work Study. It was during this time that the Peace Corps and Special Olympics began their life-changing work.

July 23, 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act was signed. And on Sept. 30, 1964, Vermont Gov. Philip Hoff signed an executive order to establish the first statewide Office of Economic Opportunity Office in the nation. In 1965, the CVOEO started work to bridge gaps and build futures.

Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all assassinated for daring to take a stand for justice and equality.

May is Community Action Awareness Month. In the days of the of the 1960s with poverty, civil and racial oppression and war all around, there was light that came out of darkness for those who needed it most. In May 2018, we still have poverty, civil and racial oppression, and global conflict abounding. It is time for a renewed commitment to a great society and the war on poverty. We, too, need to be the light.

“Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby,
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin and John.” *

* Lyrics from the song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” by Dick Holler.

Jan F. Demers is executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

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