Fighting the War on Poverty in Rural America

January 13, 2014 | General RCAP News

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's weekly column last week highlighted USDA's efforts to alleviate poverty in rural America:

Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared the beginning of “an unconditional war on poverty in America,” challenging us to bring to bear all of our available tools and resources to address poverty and income inequality across America.

Born poor in the small town of Stonewall, Texas, President Johnson knew well that poverty is not just an urban problem—it spans both rural and urban areas across the United States. In fact, today over 85 percent of persistent–poverty counties are in rural areas, often places that are hard to reach, off the beaten track, or otherwise underserved.

– See more at: http://blogs.usda.gov/2014/01/09/fighting-the-war-on-poverty-in-rural-america/#sthash.eCqEYJ6J.dpuf

Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared the beginning of “an unconditional war on poverty in America,” challenging us to bring to bear all of our available tools and resources to address poverty and income inequality across America.

Born poor in the small town of Stonewall, Texas, President Johnson knew well that poverty is not just an urban problem—it spans both rural and urban areas across the United States. In fact, today over 85 percent of persistent–poverty counties are in rural areas, often places that are hard to reach, off the beaten track, or otherwise underserved.

– See more at: http://blogs.usda.gov/2014/01/09/fighting-the-war-on-poverty-in-rural-america/#sthash.eCqEYJ6J.dpuf

Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared the beginning of “an unconditional war on poverty in America,” challenging us to bring to bear all of our available tools and resources to address poverty and income inequality across America.

Born poor in the small town of Stonewall, Texas, President Johnson knew well that poverty is not just an urban problem—it spans both rural and urban areas across the United States. In fact, today over 85 percent of persistent–poverty counties are in rural areas, often places that are hard to reach, off the beaten track, or otherwise underserved.

http://blogs.usda.gov/2014/01/09/fighting-the-war-on-poverty-in-rural-america/

RCAP's work is an outgrowth of the War on Poverty declared by President Johnson 50 years ago. Robert Stewart, RCAP's Executive Director, recently documented the history of how RCAP became a force for fighting poverty in rural America:

While LBJ initiated an incredible number of programs collectively known as the “Great Society,” it was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, creating the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) that would eventually lead to the organizations that we know today as RCAP. Under Title III of that Act, “Special Programs to Combat Rural Poverty” were created to provide funding to rural families and communities; this assistance included loans that could be made to purchase land, improve the operation of family farms, allow participation in cooperative ventures, and finance non-agricultural business enterprises, while local cooperatives which served low-income rural families could apply for another category of loans for similar purposes.  Community Action Programs were authorized under Title II leading to the creation of Community Action Agencies. Federal money was allocated to States according to their needs for job training, housing, health, and welfare assistance, and the States were then to distribute their shares of the Community Action grants on the basis of proposals from local public or non-profit private groups.

Within two years 1,000 community action agencies (CAA) had been established across America. One of these agencies, Total Action Against Poverty (TAP) out of the Roanoke Valley of Virginia, was chartered the following year. Like other CAAs, TAP was focused on helping poverty stricken individuals and families. However, they realized that to help families out of poverty conditions, community water and wastewater systems were required to provide essential services, protect the health of rural Americans and provide a foundation for economic development. These needs went beyond helping individuals to helping communities and to building community facilities. By 1968 TAP decided to expand its mission throughout the five adjacent counties by creating a new organization for these purposes and asking the OEO for support. Chartered as the Demonstration Water Project (DWP), this non-profit corporation received its first OEO grant in 1969. The success of this approach led DWP to approach OEO in 1971 to broaden its operations resulting in the award of a $6 million grant in 1972 to conduct a national program that then formed the National Demonstration Water Project (NDWP) on March 19, 1973 that included affiliates in five other states.

NDWP developed a program strategy involving field demonstration projects, research and publications, an information clearinghouse, provision of management and technical assistance and through the vehicle of the Commission on Rural Water (an ancillary group established by NDWP) a national alliance of concerned individuals and organizations to bring about needed changes and improvements in rural water and waste disposal services. Such awareness building was necessary since at this time millions of rural families were without community water and wastewater services.  Between 1974 and 1978 NDWP spent over $9 million through its affiliates (which had grown by 1978 to 16 statewide affiliates and 35 special program agency partners) to improve or create water and wastewater systems in rural America.  At this time NDWP funds were primarily for direct construction related costs.  

In 1977 the Community Services Administration (CSA – successor to OEO) provided a grant to NDWP to study and survey the possible role of CAAs in water and sewer development in rural areas. Virtually all of the CAAs indicated a dire need for additional services in this area and over half were already providing these services. Realizing that the extent of the needs required a revised model, NDWP embarked on an initiative to transfer expertise to intermediaries for local development projects. The first two regions identified where interest was strongest and where viable organizations were in place that could be trained to provide assistance in water and sewer matters were RHI in New England (later to become RCAP Solutions) and the Center for Rural Affairs (which later spun off this work to create the Midwest Assistance Program). These agencies would provide consulting assistance to rural communities and use existing development funding instead of relying on direct project subsidies as was the original NDWP design.

NDWP’s primary funding was transferred to the Economic Development Administration while CSA looked to expand the regional technical assistance model created by NDWP.  From 1979 to 1981 CSA designated and funded four additional RCAPs: Virginia Water Project (now the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project); Rural Community Assistance Corporation, Great Lakes Rural Network (now WSOS Community Action Commission) and Community Resource Group along with RHI and MAP. CSA used a six-region geographic division of the country first developed by the Farmers Home Administration and funded these as the Rural Community Assistance Program. In 1981 CSA was abolished and its duties transferred to the Office of Community Services within the Department of Health and Human Service. In 1989 the six RCAP agencies reorganized NDWP as RCAP, Inc. with a new governance structure that survives to this day.