Neighborhood Youth Corps’ shining moment in the War on Poverty

The young man stood at attention – in an almost soldier like stance – patiently waiting for me to open the front screen door of…

Heavyweight Joe Frazier hands out autographs to some admiring fans on Feb. 21, 1971 before start of workout for his upcoming championship bout with Mohammad Ali. Youngster are part of group of 42 who came by bus from New York City’s Harlem to watch workout. They are from left, Nina Mendez, 15; Madeleine Escamille, 16; and Romelle Bowen, 15. Trip to Philadelphia was sponsored by Haryou – ACT neighborhood youth corps and chartwell promotions. (AP Photo/Bill Ingraham)

The young man stood at attention – in an almost soldier like stance – patiently waiting for me to open the front screen door of my mother’s house.

“I have great news,” he announced in such a serious tone, that I thought for sure my mother had won a year’s worth of S&H Green Stamps – a popular awards program in the 60’s that could be used to redeem products in the S&H catalog. He continued, “Congratulations, you are one of the lucky few selected to participate in President Johnson’s Neighborhood Youth Corps (NYC) program in San Patricio County.”

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I didn’t know much about the NYC other than it provided work for low income youths who were either drop outs or were still in school. But there was plenty that I knew about President Lyndon Johnson, so it didn’t surprise me that he was responsible for initiating this type of federal program.

President Johnson himself came from a family of modest means, but as a teacher and elected official he became all too aware of the extensive poverty that existed in south Texas, especially among Mexican-Americans, and I’m convinced this was the impetus that drove him to create federal programs he believed would pull his fellow citizens out of poverty.

It was a proud moment for President Johnson when he made history by announcing during the University of Michigan’s commencement on Mary 22, 1964, the creation of the Great Society, which he believed would end poverty and end social injustice

President Johnson’s Great Society legislative agenda was the center of his War on Poverty and consisted of creating several new federal programs that would become his weapons to fight poverty in America. The NYC was only one of the weapons, and in this case, it was designed to help low income youth get work experience and to encourage them to stay in school.

No other president in American history has done more than Lyndon Johnson to change the tapestry of the federal government in terms of providing extensive services to its poor populous.

Yet, for all of his efforts and personal quest to improve the financial plight of his fellow citizens, the poverty rates in America, especially for Blacks and Hispanics, has increased over the past 50 years rather than decrease.

In his last state of the union message in 1988, President Reagan said that in the War on Poverty, “poverty won.” Admittedly, that is what happened.

According to the National Poverty Center, during the late 1950’s poverty rate for all Americans was 22.4 percent; that number declined during the 1960’s to 11.1 percent but by 1983 the poverty rate rose to 15.2 percent.

Meanwhile, the poverty rate for Blacks and Hispanics has typically exceeded the national average, by 2010, the poverty rate for Hispanics was 26.6 percent compared to 9.9 percent for non Hispanic Whites.

Today, there are more people on food stamps that since the program’s inception, and the poverty rate continues at an all time high.

It begs the question, why did such an enormously rich country as America lose the war on poverty? There are no easy answers. As a former federal official, I can attest to the fact that when government gets bigger and bigger, it becomes unwieldy and tough to manage.

No longer can the head of an explosive federal program, let alone a cabinet secretary wrap his or her hands around it. The bureaucracy becomes just that, “too bureaucratic” to serve anyone effectively and efficiently.

In the case of the NYC, at least in my home town area, the program became the piñata for all those that wanted to crack it and find gold for themselves and their families, fighting over the crumbs became the name of the game and in the end everyone lost.

In 1973 President Nixon began to dismantle some of the Great Society programs, although in fairness, he did transfer many of them to other parts of the government. The NYC was one of those programs that ended up on the chopping block.

I wonder if it had survived would it have had the same impact on others as it did for me. In my case, the odd jobs that I was assigned under the NYC program provided me with several opportunities that helped me in later life.

As for the money I earned that summer, it wasn’t enough to buy into the stock market and take me out of poverty overnight but it did fill my wallet full of money I used while away at college. It was a one shot deal and I knew it but that didn’t matter at the time.

I was thankful that President Johnson provided a pathway that took me out of the cotton fields my last summer in Taft, Texas in 1965 which allowed me to look at life from a whole different spectrum than I had previously and which I cherish to this day

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