50 Years Later, War on Poverty Continues

| May 16, 2014 |

James Gatling and Deborah Monahan have been on the frontlines of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ for most of its 50 years.

Gatling and Monahan head up Connecticut Community Action Agencies, which were created 50 years ago to help deliver the services Johnosn envisioned in his 1964 State of the Union address to help lift families out of poverty.

How many got out? Nationally, the poverty rate has fallen from 19 percent to 15 percent over the past two generations, but according to a report earlier this year by Pew Charitable Trusts, those rates vary from state to state. Based on U.S. Census data, poverty in Connecticut was around 9.6 percent in 1959. It dropped to 6 percent in 1990, and then went back up to 10.3 percent in 2012.

“One of the things most people don’t realize is people who have a job are still not making it and the elderly on fixed incomes that didn’t keep up with inflation really need the programs we provide,” Gatling said Tuesday in a phone interview.

He said the biggest change over the past few decades is who is walking through their doors. It’s not the stereotypical person with chronic homelessness, it’s people who have never sought any sort of public assistance before in their lives.

“These are educated people who have worked all of their lives and suddenly find themselves without a job and without unemployment benefits,” Gatling said.

Contributing to a stagnant economy struggling to rebound after the 2008 recession is the rapid globalization and automation of the workplace.

“There used to be people working at gas stations who would fill up your car and baggers at grocery stores,” he said. “Those jobs are gone and the policy makers aren’t looking at that.” He said the government should “help people get to the next level.”

Gatling, who is now the president and CEO of New Opportunities, has been with the agency since 1979. Monahan, who has been with the Thames Valley Council for Community Action Inc. for more than 40 years, said that they are seeing people they’ve never seen before come through their doors for assistance.

More than 365,800 people received services through one of the 11 Community Action Agencies in 2013 alone. That’s an increase of 2,273 individuals who were served by the agencies in 2012. The number of families served by the agencies between 2012 and 2013 rose by more than 20,000.

In 2013, more than 52,000 of the 365,800 people served by the agencies were employed. It’s unclear if their employment was full- or part-time. What is clear is that it’s still hard to get ahead.

“There are a lot of people in Connecticut who are working two and three jobs and have been doing so for as long as our agencies have been around,” Edith Karsky, executive director of the Connecticut Association for Community Action, said.

She said it’s shocking that people working multiple jobs can still qualify for these programs.

Karsky said one of the more startling statistics that shows how the need has increased since the recession hit has been the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. That program was serving 80,000 households a year prior to 2008, and now it’s serving about 110,000.

Monahan said there was a 62-year-old woman who came to her agency in search of energy assistance. During the interview with the agency the woman mentioned that she was a widow and had some tax liens on her home and was having trouble finding a job. The agency helped her find a job and she raised enough money to pay off the taxes and sell her home.

Monahan said the woman downsized and sent the agency a “thank you note,” which included a check for the energy assistance she had received the prior year. The woman asked the agency to give the money to another person in need.

“I don’t always think those stories are told,” Monahan said. “There’s a misconception that people are always taking and taking and that’s not the case. They’re extraordinarily generous.”

The Connecticut Community Action Agencies will hold a press conference at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the Legislative Office Building to talk more about the services they provide and the people they’ve helped.