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Published: May 23, 2011

Economic Opportunity Act (1964)

A landmark federal law that was the centerpiece of the WAR ON POVERTY, a far-reaching policy of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who saw education as the key to ending poverty in the United States. The architect of the program, however, was the brother-in-law of the late president John F. Kennedy, R. Sargent Shriver, who had established and effectively directed the Peace Corps in 1961. The first in a series of antipoverty measures that Congress passed during the 1960s, the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) provided for establishment of a range of community action programs, through which local communities could tap federal funds and professional help to combat the causes of poverty in their areas. Under Shriver’s direction, the programs offered something for every type of community afflicted by poverty, from health care to loans for needy farmers.
But the heart of the program were four educational programs, the most far-reaching of which was HEAD START, a preschool program for economically and culturally deprived children that provided mental and physical health care, welfare, recreation, intellectual and academic training and remediation. During its first summer of operation, the program enrolled more than 500,000 four- and fiveyear- olds in preschools across the United States. Although professionals paid with federal funds were in charge of each preschool, parents and other community residents participated in the program as paraprofessionals and volunteers.
The other three education-related programs of the Economic Opportunity Act—the National Youth Corps, the Job Corps and Upward Bound—provided for job training to ease inordinately high rates of unemployment among adolescents from low-income families. In designing each program, Shriver and his EOA planners focused on what they believed to be two basic causes of adolescent unemployment: “inherent unemployability” and “lack of salable skills.” The former was believed to be a culturally based syndrome, arising from lack of exposure to the world of work and consisting in an inability to take and carry out orders of supervisors, inability to get along with other workers, poor attendance and lack of punctuality, and apathy and lack of motivation. The lack of salable skills was the result of a continuing decline in the number of unskilled jobs in the face of increasing automation and introduction of technology in industry.
The National Youth Corps subsidized two types of work and training programs for poor high school–age youngsters. One provided and underwrote the costs of part-time jobs for lowincome high school students, paying just enough to permit them to remain in school and graduate. The second Youth Corps program provided and paid for work and training experience in nonprofit and public agencies for poor, unemployed, out-of-school adolescents 16 to 19 years old. About 50% of the youngsters went to work maintaining parks or assisting in recreation and welfare agencies, including Head Start. In New York City alone, the in-school program enrolled almost 1 million young men and women from 1967 to 1972, while the out-of-school program put nearly 500,000 to work. Both programs were designed to overcome “inherent unemployability” of the youngsters hired.
The Job Corps also provided jobs and training for adolescents. Unlike the Youth Corps, it was a residential program that transferred economically deprived youngsters, 16 to 21, to residential settings, where they were given free lodging, clothing, meals and health care, along with basic educational and vocational skills, including remedial reading, writing, mathematics and other basic academic skills. Initially a men’s program, it responded to criticism of gender bias by opening residential centers for women as well.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture operated the rural centers and trained youngsters in conservation work. Urban centers were operated by nonprofit organizations, universities and private companies such as International Business Machines Corp. and Westinghouse Corp., which taught the youngsters skills appropriate for job opportunities in urban areas. Because of its residential nature, the Job Corps proved far more costly than the Youth Corps. Although it enrolled about 750,000 young men and women between 1966 and 1990, it came under a constant barrage of criticism for focusing primarily on “inherent unemployability,” instead of salable skills. Upward Bound, the last of the EOA educational programs, was a catchall of nonresidential basic education, job training and career counseling programs primarily for adults, but also for adolescents.
Though central to the War on Poverty, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 was but one of five major pieces of federal legislation based on using education as a vehicle for the disadvantaged to emerge from their low economic conditions. The others were the MANPOWER DEVELOPMENT AND TRAINING ACT OF 1962, the VOCATIONAL EDUCATION ACT OF 1963, the ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION ACT OF 1965 and the HIGHER EDUCATION ACT OF 1965. All may be said to have had their roots in the reaction to Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), which shattered the widely believed myth that the United States was an “affluent society.” Indeed, he claimed that between 40 million and 50 million Americans—about 22% to 28% of the nation’s population at the time—lived in poverty, in families earning less than $3,000 a year.
Substantiated by ample federal government statistics, his data helped mobilize Washington and the American people until their attention was increasingly drawn to the Vietnam War, which siphoned off many of the financial resources that had been dedicated to the programs created during the War on Poverty.
In 1973, many of the job training programs were reorganized and grouped under the COMPREHENSIVE EMPLOYMENT AND TRAINING ACT OF 1973. The Office of Economic Opportunity, which administered the War on Poverty, was dismantled, and by the end of the 1970s, its functions had been scattered throughout the Department of Labor and what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later reorganized into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services). Of the major programs of the War on Poverty, only Head Start continues to thrive and grow.