Presidents Paving the Path Out of Poverty

by: Dawn Hartfelder, Staff Writer

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

A very joyous President’s Day to you and yours on this February 15th, 2021! Having just celebrated Valentine’s Day yesterday, you may have had a chance to ponder the things you love. If loving the work you do hit that list then here is an uplifting story of some of our presidents, and a special piece on those who marked our unique path, of how Norwescap came to be.

Every president leaves a mark on our American history in some way or another. Whether it’s George Washington for defeating the British, having a direct hand in the United States’ sovereignty and laying the foundation of what a president should be, or William Henry Harrison for dying on his 32nd day in office with an unrelenting case of pneumonia.

United States Presidents come in all shapes and sizes, and now in an array of American shades too! Did you know that James Madison, America’s fourth President stood at only 5’ 4”? He was a major contributor to the ratification of the Constitution by having written The Federalist Papers, and is referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.” Considering who he was married to though, let’s not be surprised by his tall feats contrasted only by his diminutive stature. His wife, first lady, Dolley Madison, is credited with bringing ice cream to the White House and it’s a fact that good things come to those who are fed frozen desserts! Please note it was the early 1800s, a time without modern freezers. Making ice cream therefore relied on an ice house with large blocks of ice cut from frozen water, and packed on straw and held in a cool place. To love ice cream in this era required more than a trip to the corner 7-11.

Even with all this ice cream in the White House, Madison only weighed in at a scant 122 lbs., compared to the near 350 lbs. of our heaviest president, William Howard Taft. Taft was our 27th president and his stature prompted a legendary body-shaming tale of fiction that it took six men to dislodge him from his bath tub. While that was ‘fake-news’, here’s some truth: he wasn’t much of a heavyweight as a president, leaving little legacy in politics or policy.

Physical appearances aside this country has also had its share of good, bad and even questionable behavior. Questionable, you say? Yes, like marrying-your-adopted-daughter disreputable behavior. Grover Cleveland was our 22nd and our 24th president. He was a guardian “uncle” figure to little Frances Clara Folsom, 28 years his junior, and even bought her a baby carriage as a gift upon her birth. When her father passed, Grover was appointed her guardian. They married in the summer of 1886, his second year of his first presidency at the White House. Even if we could make this story up, that one reaches the boundaries of appropriateness.

From some of our best presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln for his Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his “New Deal,” which created Social Security and reformed the banking system, to our worst (eh hmm, we will leave you to fill in that blank) no mark is more indelible to the work at Norwescap than that of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Not to be confused with Johnson from the ‘bad list’; Andrew Johnson, most noted for being impeached after removing his Secretary of War from office, which was a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, besides having his entire administration beleaguered with trouble from Civil War reconstruction efforts.

Lyndon Johnson was also famously known as LBJ. If we simply put a moniker of “Notorious” in front the LBJ, he might be able to share the stage with our beloved RBG. Just as much as we love Ruth Bader Ginsburg for spending her career fighting for the rights of marginalized groups and co-founding the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, we must give love to LBJ for his direct hand in fighting poverty.

It was 1964 when LBJ made his declaration to Congress with an aim “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it”. Congress then got to work passing legislation to transform the school systems, launch Medicare/Medicaid, and expand housing subsidies & urban development programs, employment and training programs, food stamps, and Social Security and welfare benefits over the next few years.

10 more presidents have taken office and inherited this restless battle since LBJ’s first proclamation of, “We shall not rest until that war is won.” Norwescap has stood on the frontlines throughout.

Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy as President during a tumultuous time in our American history whereby Kennedy had been assassinated. Prior to Johnson taking the office, Kennedy had tasked his economic advisors to address poverty in America and submit plans to resolve this problem. Johnson expanded those plans and revised the proposals to develop what became the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. President Johnson’s vision was termed The Great Society, and was committed to improving the lives of ALL Americans, regardless of their conditions. Johnson was a devout proponent of equal opportunity and enacted the necessary changes within the federal government to get the Economic Opportunity Act signed into law creating the nationwide Community Action Network. Some of the initiatives included in this act may be very familiar to those of us at Norwescap as they included:

• Head Start

• Job Corps

• Work-Study program for university students

• VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) – a domestic version of the Peace Corps

• Neighborhood Youth Corps

• Basic education and adult job training

• CAPS (Community Action Programs)

CAPS are perhaps the most unique part of this, deemed “controversial”, on some levels as it proposed “maximum feasible participation” by participants (individuals in poverty) to determine what form of help they need most. This presents a drastic pivot from how social reform had been previously doled out. This new and gallant idea of Community Action hands over control to local levels to target specific population needs.

While The Economic Opportunity Act may have been innovative legislation, it was critically underfunded, a complaint many of us may agree with still today.

Later President Ronald Reagan introduced the Block Grant in 1981 changing the way federal funding was distributed. Community Action Programs then received funding through the State Office of Community Action &/or Services.

That federal funding hasn’t remained stable over the years and was even challenged by President George W. Bush who denounced the program claiming it wasn’t generating enough change. As Norwescap employees, we may all be able to attest to relatable frustration as the fruits of our labor don’t produce immediate results. Nonetheless, Community Action Partnerships are still a critical safety net to the vulnerable populations we encounter.

In 2001, Community Action made improvements with a thing called ‘Results Oriented Management and Accountability’ or what we so frequently refer to simply as ROMA. This is a context for us to find ways to improve our services and our outreach.

Getting back to that ‘maximum feasible participation’, this is a guiding principle we continue with presently. Local Community Action boards seek representation from all segments of their local community, not excluding anyone, especially their low-income clients. Remember that the essential part of Community Action Agencies is to promote self-sufficiency, not dependency. As we know, in our everyday practices, the best methods for this are by: prioritizing prevention, addressing the causes of poverty, involving the community, improving the community, and creating opportunity. We do this by giving care to our clients that is: flexible, coordinated, and directed to the long term development of the client.

“As the wealthiest nation on Earth, I believe the United States has a moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition, and to partner with others.” – Barack Obama