What is Economic Opportunity Act of 1964?
Enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in August of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act was a fundamental law of Johnson’s War on Poverty. Implemented by the Office of Economic Opportunity, the legislation included a variety of social programs to promote education, general welfare and health for the impoverished in America. Although the majority of the provisions of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 have since been rolled back, weakened or modified, its core programs (Job Corps and Head Start) remain intact.
The philosophy behind the Economic Opportunity Act did not focus on wealth distribution, but instead, the belief that government must provide impoverished people with opportunities to earn a respectable wage and maintain their families in a comfortable setting. President Johnson identified the constitutional basis for the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 by stating Congress’ responsibility to provide for the general welfare of American citizens.
Why was the Economic Opportunity Act Created?
The 1960s represented a period of great reform. During this time, poverty was rising due to the widening of the wealth gap and an assortment of other economic factors. The President’s Council of Economic Adviser’, in 1964, issued a report that focused solely on the problem of poverty in the United States. This report included statistics that revealed–in the greatest time of prosperity in the nation—that nearly 20% of American families were poor (incomes under $3,000 for a family of four). The report also revealed that over 50% of non-whites were living in poverty.
In January of 1964, President Johnson and his cabinet developed a bill to curb increasing poverty in the United States. The provisions and the newly-found programs (explained below) of the Economic Opportunity Act were funded by Congress on the final day of the 1964 Congressional session–$800 million was delivered to the programs for the fiscal year of 1965.
Foundation of the Economic Opportunity Act:
The Economic Opportunity Act employed two mechanisms to provide welfare to the impoverished. First, the Economic opportunity Act of 1964, established eleven federal programs that were run by the Office of Economic Opportunity—the programs are listed below:
• Job Corps: The creation of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 gave way to the establishment of Job Corps, which provides basic education, work and training resources in residential centers for young students, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one
• Neighborhood Youth Corps: The creation of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 established the Neighborhood Youth Corps, which provides training and employment opportunities for young men and women, between 16 and 21 years of age, who come from impoverished families and communities.
• Work Study Programs: Central programs created by the Economic Opportunity Act, these programs provide grants to institutions of higher education (colleges and universities) for part-time employment of young students from low-income families. Candidates for these work study programs need the employment to earn money for their pursuit of education.
• Adult Basic Education: Provides grants to educational agencies (on the local level) for programs of instruction for individuals over the age of 18. Individuals who utilize this program of the Economic Opportunity Act struggle with the English language (candidates possess marginal reading and writing capabilities which serve as an impediment to employment).
• Urban and Rural Community Action: Provides technical and financial assistance to public and private nonprofit groups for the development of community action programs that yield a maximum feasible participation of the impoverished. These groups are created to give promise of progress towards the mass elimination of poverty in the United States.
• Voluntary Assistance for Needy Children: The creation of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 gave way to the establishment of the Voluntary Assistance for Needy Children campaign, which established a coordination and information center to encourage voluntary assistance for needy youths.
• Financial Assistance to Rural Families: Another fundamental aspect of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964; the Loans to Rural Families program provides financing of micro-loans (under $2,500) to low income rural families for the sole purpose of increasing their disposable income
• Work Experience: The creation of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 established the Work Experience program, which provides financing for pilot, demonstration and experimental projects for the purpose of expanding opportunities for work experience and necessary training of individuals who are unable to support their families.
• Assistance for Migrant Agricultural Employees: provides assistance to state and local governments, as well as nonprofit agencies or individuals aligned with operating programs that assist migratory workers and their families with securing housing, education and resources to support their children. This program also provides sanitation help for those in need.
• Employment and Investment Incentives: Another critical aspect of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, this program provides loans (under $25,000) to single borrowers to create small businesses and innovate the market
• Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA Program): This program of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 recruits, selects, refers and trains volunteers to all local and state agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations, throughout the United States. The volunteers supplied by the VISTA program are required to perform duties to combat poverty in the United States.
In addition to creating and implementing the above programs, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 empowered the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity to coordinate anti-poverty efforts of all government agencies. This provision of the Act was deemed necessary by Johnson, who was tired of the government’s inability to mitigate the social costs that arise due to poverty.
This provision (the second mechanism of the Act) of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 directed government agencies to establish an Economic Opportunity Council–which was chaired by the director of the OEO and composed of various members of Johnson’s cabinet—to consult with various officials in effectively carrying out the above programs and functions.
The Economic Opportunity Act’s Impact:
From the onset of its passing, Republicans (and many Southern Democrats) attempted to dismantle the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and transfer the operating programs to various government departments and agencies. Congress eventually repealed the Act in 1981; however, a number of the programs established by the act have survived to present day. The majority of historians and political enthusiasts who debate the reasons for the OEO’s failure point to circuitous government actions—the flow of funds needed to support the programs were not properly handled. Additionally, the core vision of the Economic Opportunity Act was to rid all Americans of poverty. This goal, which is incredible ambitious in general, was not met with calculated means. There was no provision for the employment of adult men, there was no coordination between programs and lastly, commitment to the objective often took a backseat to international conflicts or other macro-economic incidences.