Not many books print questions on the cover. This one does. "If Community Action works in Southern Virginia, why can't it be made to work everywhere?"
A number of answers come to mind, the broadest one being that Community Action is working in a fair number of everywheres. The success stories aren't well known. The war on poverty, goes the conventional thinking, is history. It flopped. The liberals' efforts of the 1960s are dead, with no surviving heirs. In fact, programs like Community Action -- as well as Head Start, Legal Services, VISTA, Upward Bound, the Job Corps, Foster Grandparents and others -- are working, despite the efforts to kill them and despite the media's inattention.
When attention is paid -- by observers like Edwin L. Cobb -- stories are told that need to be heard, reheard and heard still again. Convincingly and in well-buttoned prose that keeps his facts and ideals snapped together, Cobb tells the story of some Roanoke Valley citizens who worked hard to get their antipoverty programs to work well.
In the five counties served by the valley's Community Action Agency -- Total Action Against Poverty (TAP) -- poverty has decreased by 30 percent in 17 years. It could have been that way nationally. In the nine years of the Office of Economic Opportunity (1965-74) and its programs of self-reliance, America's poverty population had declined from about 20 percent to 11 percent. The number had never been that low since the records had been kept. Since the Nixon dismantlement of OEO in 1974 and the Reagan administration destructiveness begun in January 1981, poverty has been rising sharply. It is now at 15 percent, or 35 million women, children and men -- the largest number of poor people in the nation's history.
It has been different in the Roanoke Valley. With a small infusion of federal money -- the people's money returned to the people -- the larger energy came from a coalition of local citizens, who made a moral commitment to the poor and never let it waver when less rosy days came. One of these was Cabell Brand, an establishment businessman whose old Virginia family-owned shoe business had employed thousands of people since 1904. Brand understood the economics of the Economic Opportunity Act: invest a little now, earn the large social benefits later. He was joined by Bristow Hardin, a benignly eccentric former school The reviewer is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. principal who had a feel for people and a grantsmanship touch that made him a successful first director of the program.
In its 18 years, TAP has offered nearly every social service imaginable to the poor black and white families of the Roanoke Valley. Cobb reports that the program focused on development, not maintenance. This is a crucial point. Liberals in Congress like the late Carl Perkins have been mistakenly criticized for "throwing money" at poverty. In fact, the money-throwing didn't involve OEO programs at all but ones like Aid to Families with Dependent Children or food stamps that were enlarged by Nixon. His approach was to give the poor handouts. Shut them up that way.
The opposite has been the history of many TAP programs, Cobb writes: "They are designed in response to a need perceived either by the poor themselves or by social outreach workers, are funded and implemented by TAP, and are then institutionalized by being passed on to other organizations or set up independently. TAP has taken dozens of programs through this procedure. Some have fallen down at one or another of the steps involved, but the rest have flourished."
To the cool managerialists of the Reagan administration, successful programs in the Roanoke Valley like the "Our Hope" credit union or the Women's Resource Center are throwaways. Reagan officials like David Stockman have shown little awareness that the poor exist. In explaining that, Cobb makes no pretense of being a social theorist of Michael Harrington's or Robert Heilbroner's rank. His investigations of the successes in the Roanoke Valley led to basic truths: "Present policies . . . are all based on the premise that the nurturing of the rich will lead to the nourishment of the poor, despite substantial historical evidence to the contrary. The belief that problems should be attacked at the source -- a notion now derided as passe' even at gatherings of wine-and-cheese liberals -- has been replaced by worship at the altar of the Market."
Cobb faults liberals for going "into hiding" once the New Right began shouting from the White House rooftop. With perception, he sees a more dangerous retreat, the one led by "the now-fashionable neo-liberals. They profess great concern for poor people but have lost all taste for social battle and all hope for victory. They retreat instead into voguish nostrums with conservative appeal such as 'public-private partnerships' and 'industrial policy.' "
That's fancy talk for the neo-lib seminars, but plain talk is preferred in the Roanoke Valley. Its people prefer plain programs, too: from Head Start for the children to Operation Mainstream for older unemployed workers. They have these programs and intend to keep them going. Cobb's descriptions, which will reach a national audience, will help assure that they do. There, and everywhere.