On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress to declare an ‘‘unconditional war on poverty,’’ and by August legislation was in place for a broad range of government programs under the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Though the major focus was on urban poverty, the rural poverty of Appalachia and West Virginia also drew attention. Manpower training programs provided job training for workers, like many in the coal industry, whose jobs had been lost to technological change. The Job Corps offered opportunities for unemployed youth to learn marketable skills, and the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) called upon volunteers (who came mostly from middle-class youth) to help fight poverty in America as the Peace Corps did abroad. Head Start sought to prepare poor pre-school youngsters for the classroom. Through the Appalachian Regional Commission and other programs funding was provided for public works projects in impoverished areas. Some help also was available for struggling farmers and small businesses, and Medicare and Medicaid provided medical insurance for the elderly and the poor.
Governor Hulett Smith, a Democrat, appointed Paul L. Crabtree as the director of the state economic opportunity agency and Dr. Eugene Thoenen as chief coordinator. Elizabeth Victoria Depaulo was the first state coordinator of Project Head Start.
The most controversial part of the War on Poverty, the Community Action Program (CAP), provided funding for local antipoverty programs that were to seek ‘‘maximum feasible participation’’ of community people. To qualify for federal funding, counties established economic opportunity commissions which in turn were charged with organizing local people to address their problems. In West Virginia as elsewhere, established politicians found the CAP organizations threatening and complained that they undermined the elected local officials. Although federal agents of the OEO felt that many of the county organizations fell short of the agency’s conceptions of what community action should be, it was precisely the counties (such as Raleigh and Mingo) with strong community action organizations that caused the greatest complaint from politicians and local authorities. In Mingo County, CAP groups campaigned for clean elections. CAP organizations challenged local school boards, county courts, and municipal governments and organized demonstrations that upset local economic and political interests.
Like their counterparts in other places, West Virginia politicians carried their complaints to Washington and to state officials. By the end of 1968, with the approval of both Washington and Charleston, counties reasserted their control over their economic opportunity commissions and community action programs.
As early as 1965, the pressures of political opposition and growing budgetary constraints imposed by the escalation of the Vietnam War led to a scaling back of plans for fighting poverty. President Richard Nixon, elected in 1968, began the dismantling of the OEO programs, and in 1974 Congress abolished the agency altogether, scattering its components throughout the federal bureaucracy.
The War on Poverty fell short of achieving its lofty goals and suffered much criticism in the more conservative decades that followed, but most of the programs established under OEO still existed at the end of the century.
This Article was written by Jerry Bruce Thomas
Last Revised on November 12, 2010
Mutsow, Allen J. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Perry, Huey. They'll Cut Off your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle. New York: Praeger, 1972.
Hulett Carlson Smith. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.
Cite This Article
Thomas, Jerry Bruce "War on Poverty." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 12 November 2010. Web. 23 February 2017.