'We challenged the system' Local Community Action Committee marks half a century in its fight to end poverty
"This year-2015-we are commemorating several momentous historical anniversaries. One-hundred-fifty years ago the Civil War ended and President Lincoln was assassinated. One hundred years later, the country embarked on yet another war - the "War on Poverty."
In his State of the Union address to Congress in January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson called for legislation that expanded on the policy ideas initiated by President John F. Kennedy before his assassination only months before.
"Let us carry forward the plans and programs of John F. Kennedy, not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right…," Johnson urged.
Then he declared, "This Administration today, here and now declares an unconditional War On Poverty in America …. Our joint Federal-local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists. In city slums, in small towns, in sharecroppers' shacks, or in migrant worker camps, on Indian reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas."
That August, Congress responded by passing the Economic Opportunity Act creating the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. The legislation represented an innovative community approach by bypassing state and local governments and providing funding directly to Community Action agencies created at the local level.
The Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley was established Dec. 20, 1965, but as was the case for the more than 1,000 nationwide community programs born out of the "War on Poverty," it was never properly funded. Further, expectations that Community Action Programs and agencies would be an effective weapon against poverty were often disappointed, because many of them were riddled with problems.
CACLV Executive Director Alan Jennings joined the agency in 1980, right out of graduate school.
"I wanted to save the world," Jennings recalls, but he said the world wasn't very idealist at the time. As for the agency, "It only took me two days to figure out that it was minimally effective."
When President Reagan tried to kill community action as Nixon had tried in the 1970s, Congress compromised and established block grants so funding for programs went to the states. This meant the agencies would be under more intense scrutiny than in previous administrations. It also represented an overall cut in funding of 25 percent.
With block grants in place, Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh in 1982 ordered an investigation of all community agencies statewide.
"We came out fourth worst out of 34," Jennings admits, "but the governor couldn't shut us down because he would also have had to shut down [agencies in] Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Reading."
All four programs were placed on probation for six months, with funding depending on their getting their acts together.
"Our board of directors voted to shut us down if we did not get funding after September," according to Jennings. Despite this, Jennings says, "The short story is we prevailed."
When the then-CACLV executive director jumped ship, the board could not replace him, so it looked inside for someone to keep things going. There were only two choices, according to Jennings: "Myself and a 24-year-old woman who was stable and dependable, steady and professional; and myself. I was none of those things. I was a hell raiser, troublemaker and pain in the ass."
The woman was Sandy Murphy.
Jennings became the number two person, responsible for creating new programs and helping turn things around.
"We dismantled the agency and started from scratch," Jennings says. They used a two-step strategy. "We needed friends and allies, and we had to create programs to replace food stamps and other basic elements needed for survival - food, heat and housing."
CACLV began to work in partnership with other groups, such as the Lehigh Valley Food Bank.
By the time the state needed someone to run its Weatherization Assistance Program, funded through the U.S. Department of Energy, it came to the CACLV.
The recession of the 1980s decimated the industrial economy, leaving high unemployment and deep cuts in social welfare programs. CACLV met the challenge. It created Second Harvest and a job bank in Easton, homeless shelters and an energy assistance program.
In 1990, Murphy moved on and Jennings became director.
In the decades since, Jennings says CACLV has evolved into an agency that promotes asset-building (home ownership and microenterprise development) and neighborhood revitalization, while continuing to serve the needs of low-income persons.
"Perhaps most importantly," Jennings wrote in a recent article in the Community Action CHRONICLE, "CACLV has been a loud voice for fairness. We stood up for those who were knocked down, whether it was pushing an increase in the minimum wage, or fighting deeper and deeper funding cuts. We spoke out on behalf of neighborhoods, pushing access to credit, exposing the predatory lenders, landlords causing blight and real estate brokers who were violating fair housing laws."
Sometimes, Jennings' reputation precedes him. Recently, developer Lou Pector planned to evict people living in 43 mobile homes on land he owned in Bethlehem Township so he could build upscale town homes. Before Jennings had a chance to take on Pector, the developer called Jennings and offered to pay $5,000 to each household to help with moving costs.
Serving Lehigh and Northampton counties, CACLV today has 95 employees and more than 1,000 volunteers supporting its extensive network of programs that reach nearly 100,000 residents a year. Its Second Harvest program feeds 70,000 a month, and it runs the largest homeless shelter in the area. But it is much more than that.
CACLV helps residents start businesses and buy homes - many that it buys and renovates to improve neighborhoods. It works with banks to help prevent home foreclosures. It helps with job training, and works with businesses to provide wages that allow workers to be self-sufficient. All this with a $20 million annual budget supplemented many times over with volunteers, donations and in-kind services.
After five decades, what does Jennings believe is CACLV's major accomplishment?
He thinks a moment, and then says, "Probably getting the culture of the Lehigh Valley to understand that poverty is unacceptable."
Nonetheless, he says the gap between the rich and poor has gotten worse than it was in 1965.
"I consider myself essentially a failure, but I'm not giving up," he says.
In his article in the CHRONCLE, Jennings sums up the half-century struggle.
"We grew, despite endless funding cuts. We survived Reagan and the younger Bush. We innovated, even though many resist change. We challenged the system; we were embraced by the system. We have fought many battles; some won, some lost, some rained out."