For Maurice Robinson, principal of a small Baltimore school for dropouts, the war goes on. In the city with the nation's second highest jobless rate for blacks, the battle seems much the same as in 1965 -- the year Robinson left his job as a puboic school teacher to join the staff of America's first Job Corps center.
But now the spotlight is gone.
Each morning, Robinson, 48, takes a sobering look at a chart on his bulletin board, showing the number of Baltimore public school dropouts, compared to the enrollment in his school, Harbor City Learning Center. The dropouts totaled 8,000 last year, the same number as graduated from all schools in the city.
"Now you look at that 8,000 and you look at this school, where we can only take 680 students a year," he says. The dropout chart literally rises off the bulletin board; the school enrollment chart next to it looks minuscule.
"You might ask me why I think it's even worth trying," says Robinson, himself a native of a Baltimore ghetto, who is remembered by almost all the pilot Job Corps recruits located by The Washington Post. "Black then (in 1965), I thought poverty could be conquered. Now I feel this way: If you can't conquer it, why not try to save a small portion? . . ."
From where Robinson sits, it is hard to believe that a new school of social policymakers just 40 miles down the road, in Washington, D.C., is debating whether poverty still exits in America. The debate itself is one sign of how much has changed since the days of Catoctin, when President Lyndon Johnson made poverty the federal government's top priority, at least rhetorically.
Listen to Martin Anderson, chief domestic policy adviser on President-elect Ronald Reagan's transition team: "The number of people remaining in poverty is very small and it grows smaller every day . . ." Anderson wrote in a recent essay. "The War on Poverty has been won, except perhaps for a few mopping-up operations."
As in 1964, the federal policy-makers are redefining poverity. While the "experts" of the 1960s were heavy on humanism, the new wave talks statistics. Anderson and others who share his views have added the cost of food stamps, public housing, day care and other federal assistance into the incomes of the poor, concluding that only 3.6 to 6.4 percent of all Americans have incomes below the poverty line. (The Census Bureau counts 11.6 percent.)
In policy terms, they say this calls for a "reindustrialized" private sector -- not expanded federal programs -- to combat poverty in the 1980s.
Ironically, today's Job Corps, the direct descendant of the program born in the heyday of the War on Poverty, finds itself somewhat in tune with the new policies. From the start, it was different from other poverty programs in that it focused directly on moving youths into jobs in private business. Today's Job Corps officials say they have translated the lessons of Cotactin and later centers into a more fine-tuned program.
"The Great Society started out with a lot of misconceptions," says Timothy Barnacle, director of youth programs at the Labor Department, which has run Job Corps since the dismantling of the Office of Economic Opportunity. "One thing we've learned from programs like Job Corps is that if you give them time and you learn from experiences, you shape the concepts to fit the needs of the people you're dealing with."
Barnacle and other officials point often to a thick, $3 million statistical follow-up study of Job Corps youths, telling how many got jobs in six months, in eight months, in 12 months; how Job Corps affects their health, any tendencies toward criminal behavior, dependence on welfare, the number of children they have. It concludes that the program's benefits far outweigh its cost.
But the study, the most in-depth in Job Corps history, goes back only three years; nobody in the present Job Corps bureaucracy claims to know what happened to the first men who went through the program. They say Job Corps has matured so much since then that it would boe of little use to study the present-day lives of men like the 24 located by The Post form Catoctin's pilot class.
At least two of those men -- Augustus Jones black communities in the rural South -- would probably disagree. They leaped dramatically out of poverty because of their Job Corps experiences, even in the rudimentary setting of Catoctin. And in the intervening 15 years, they have learned much about poverty and opportunity that would not show up in a three-year statistical report.
One reason for Jones's and Fortune's success lies in a crucial decision they both made as youths. Life in their home towns was unbearable. Jones was one of 10 child of a struggling, rural Oklahoma farmer; Fortune was the son of a rural South Carolina domestic worker, with no job opportunities wccept in the fields and the cotton gin companies, which paid about $45 for a 60-hour week.
"The guys who left Job Corps, some of them had it made better at home than I did. Some of 'em figured they'd just hustle in the streets, but I was never like that," says Fortune. "I decided to give it a chance. I remember my mama didn't want me to go. She didn't know where Maryland was. But I was so determined to get somewhere, and I told her I'd give it a try."
It was that sort of drive, they said in separate interviews, that made them stay in the Job Corps in 1965, and fight to get ahead afterward. They say they do not know why they had the fortitude others lacked -- first, to stay in the program, later to keep pushing for advancement - but they say it was there before they heard of Job Corps. Family structure doesn't necessarily hold the answer, since Jones had a father who inspired him, and Fortune says he never knew his.
Fortune stayed at Catoctin 15 months and learned to operate National Park Service equipment. Then he was placed in the Park Service maintenance division in the District of Columbia, one of only two men among the 24 located by The Post who were placed in jobs on leaving Catoctin.
If he had not gone to Job Corps, Fortune says, "I think it would be pretty rough. I was already a hard worker, but I still think it was best.Most of my buddies at home, most of 'em don't have too decen jobs."
But there are forces on the outside that have kept Fortune less than satisfied with his new life. He has now worked in the Park Service maintenance division for 14 years. A truck driver, he says he feels cut off from advancement by a civil service system that masks a buddy system. He and his wife and two children live in a massive, poorly maintained apartment complex jammed into a small cul de sac in Northeast Washington.
At 36, Fortune finds himself looking longingly at his hometown of Florence, S.C. In the last 15 years, economic development has done for Florence what Job Corps did for Fortune. Factories and vocational schools have opened nearby; young, black men can now work on assembly lines instead of in fields. Houses there sell for half the price of a down payment here. If things had been like that in 1965, Fortune says, he might never have wanted to go to Job Corps.
"What we'd like to do is live here three more years and go back to South Caroline," he says. "I'd like to get me a job, maybe in a factory and build me a house. My kids, they like it down there. My wife, she says she's worked long enough. Life is a lot easier down there."
Augustus Jones' odyssey from an Oklahoma farm to Catoctin to Vietnam and to a $23,000-a-year job at the Boeing Co. plant in Wichita, Kan., is the classic rags to middle-class story that Job Corps sought to produce. Jones says the credit goes first to his father, then to the program.
He heard about Catoctin when he was a 16-year-old high school dropout, living in Wichita with two sisters who were on welfare. He had just been fired from his job as a menial laborer at a small rag factory.
"I was determined to make something more of my life than work in a rag company. And I knew I was headed back to Oklahoma to work on a farm unless I did something," he says. So he latched onto Catoctin, and every other opportunity that came along, to break out.
In Job Corps, he learned the rudiments of mechanics, the trade he had wanted to learned all along, but was drafted into the Army before completing the program. The Army sent him to Vietnam as a heavy equipment mechanic (he figures that, without the education he got in Job Corps, he would not have been able to score high enough for any duty other than the infantry, "and then I might be nothing more than a cemetery marker").
On returning to Wichita, after learning more mechanical skills in Vietnam, he couldn't find skilled work. Another Catoctin recruit who had the same experience in Baltimore says he gave up and started selling drugs. But Jones went the other way. He worked a series of menial jobs, and then went to night technical school under the GI bill to train as a machinist. Now he works for the Boeing Co. in Wichita, running automatic screw machines for $10.99 an hour.
He is married, the father of two girls, and a homeowner. He says that his success spread throughout his family. His two sisters, who had been on welfare, had promised that if he made something of himself, they would too. Both went back to school; one is now a nurse, the other a factory worker in Wichita. One brother recently graduated from the University of Tulsa.
His is a story of personal endurance, aided by Job Corps at a crucial moment. "It has to be a personal deal," he says in retrospect of his last 15 years. "Me, I came from a family that had nothing, but we were a religious family. Our daddy worked hard and tried to have something. He showed us to have some kind of values in life."
The men who founded Catoctin, like the boys who went there in early 1965, speak as if they have grown up in the last 15 years, particularly in their views of government crusades. They talk of the War on Poverty as an era that had all the excitement and possibility of youth. Moving on was like coming of age.
Maurice Robinson vividly remembers the day he decided, after two years of waking up at 5:30 every morning to drive from home to Catoctin, that it was time to go back to Baltimore. "It happened when I was playing basketball with the corpsmen and I hurt my hip.I remember thinking, 'What am I doing on top of a mountain playing basketball with these kids?' I realized I would like to see my baby girl grow up. I knew I needed to be home more," he recalls.
"I felt like I was a traitor but I had to leave. I had given the best two years of my life," he says, gazing out the dormer window of his top floor office at Harbor City Learning Center. "You know, to this day I wake up at 5:30 as if I had to drive up to Catoctin. Now I just fumble around till it's time to come over here to Harbor City. But this is where I belong. At the time, I said to myself, 'I should be in my own community doing these same kinds of things.' Baltimore needed some people who didn't mind sacrificing and working."
Former Office of Economic Opportunity director Sargent Shriver is still fighting the war, too, but on a different front than Robinson. In his expansive Watergate law office, he spoke of Catoctin as if, for a few moments, he once again was directing OEO, facing down conservative opponents in Congress, railing at the growing defense budget and the shrinking federal resolve to conquer poverty.
"All the neoconservatives in Congress today, they love to say, 'Nothing works, nothing works.' They say we tried in the '60s and we failed," he says bitterly. "Well, if someone said to Dwight Eisenhower: 'I want you to conquer Hitler and here's $2 billion, and if you can't do it with $2 billion, then it can't be done,' that would be the perfect analogy to what happened to us . . .
"Ronald Reagan likes to say that we lost the war in Vietnam because our troops weren't allowed to win it. But he's wrong, of course. We didn't lose there because of lack of money or a lack of troops. The fact is that the only war we were never allowed to win was the War on Poverty."
Out at the University of Houston, David Gottlieb looks back on Job Corps with more detachment. A sociologist who helped design and run the program in its first years, he says he wishes he had known then what he knows now -- about poverty and about government.
Then he was 35 and a rising, young academic now he is 50 and the director of a social sciences institute, with government consulting jobs on the side. He still calls himself an idealist, still writes books and articles based on intensive interviews with adolescents but he has long since renounced his 1965 title of "expert on disadvantaged youth."
He now says he and others never should have promised to wipe out poverty. Instead they should have tried to stress its depths and the importance of fighting it even if victories were hard to document and slow to emerge. He wishes they had been more humble admitting how little they understood as soon as they discovered their misconceptions.
But that is not the way government works, he has concluded not in 1965 and not in 1980. The terminology and the "experts" may change, but the bind remains To fight a war, you have to first convince Congress and the public that they can win it. That done, you can't afford to back up and confront shortcomings.
"The more I think about it -- our putting out the cosmetic side of everything, making the best possible presentation you can make out of something that's in trouble -- it's all part of something that happens when you come to Washington. You get caught up with yourself," Gottlieb says.
"We were so naive. We had no idea what these kids had suffered and what they had endured. We were so caught up with this thing and in what it could be that we got carried away. It became a matter of covering things . . . I think back on it, and it seems to me that telling the America people the truth might have helped more than anything. . .
"But deep down, I still have this feeling, that it was a different world then, and we were a different breed of people. And as much as we bungled and as much as we simple couldn't have know, there was a sincere and driving commitment that this could be a lesson for America and the world. Then suddenly, there were the kids, and there was the media and the politics and the bureaucracy. And there we were. . . ." CAPTION: Picture 1, Two success stories: Augustus Jones is shown at his job at the Boeing plant in Wichita, Kan, where he now makes $23,000 a year after learning mechanics in the Job Corps and training in Armny. Picture 2, Dave Fortune stands in front of the truck he drives for the National Park Service. Fortune would like to return to South Carolina with his family, find some work and build a house there. Boeing Company/By Craig Herndor, The Washington Post