Access Community Action Agency marks 50 years of service

CAFCA | May 11, 2015 |

April 17 event at UConn's Thomas J. Dodd Research Center celebrated 50 years of community service through the Access Community Action Agency. Peter DeBiasi, the Access President/CEO for the past 10 years, spoke of the agency's origins during his opening remarks.


Originally known as the Windham Area Community Action Program, Inc., the agency arose as a result of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Economic Opportunity Act, signed in 1964. Since then, the agency has been providing a growing number of services to vulnerable populations in a growing region of eastern Connecticut. The agency was renamed Access in 1994, and today serves clients in Windham and Tolland counties. Currently, Access' programs include energy assistance, food banks, supportive housing, senior housing, case management, emergency shelter, WIC, Windham Area Hour Exchange, support for at-risk youth, and more.


DeBiasi said that it would have been wonderful to look back on 50 years and say that the war on poverty had been won. "Unfortunately, that hasn't happened," he said. "It's 50 years later and poverty is still in our midst." Though certain programs have been a resounding success, and Access has helped many people over the years, "There are still far too many people struggling from day to day," said DeBiasi. DeBiasi referred to Connecticut as the richest state in one of the richest countries. Especially here, he said, "this should not be the case."


This sentiment was echoed by Sasha Abramsky, the event's keynote speaker. Drawing from his book, "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives," Abramsky said he intended to paint an overview of "what poverty in 2015 looks like."


"Why does poverty still exist?" asked Abramsky. "Why is it that in a country with so many signs of economic health, so many still live in poverty?"


Abramsky painted a picture of pockets of extreme poverty in areas such as north Las Vegas and Appalachian Pennsylvania. He spoke of a high school in Las Vegas with a homeless counselor, necessary because so many of its students faced homelessness. These pockets of poverty, argued Abramsky, had been created by an economic transfer of resources that has created the largest earning gap in 100 years in this country. This transfer up the ladder had been created by decades of political decisions. "We're very good at preserving wealth at the top of the hierarchy," said Abramsky. "We've essentially created a modern American oligarchy."


A few hundred families, suggested Abramsky, control more economic resources than the 150 million Americans at the bottom of the economic ladder. This situation has been created by policy moves such as lowering the estate tax and the top income tax rate. Abramsky offered potential solutions, including increasing the top income tax levels, eliminating exemptions for estate taxes, financial transaction taxes, and an educational opportunity fund. "There are all kinds of solutions that we could try if we had the will," said Abramsky. "It's a moral crisis that demands a moral response."


An original documentary produced by photographer Bradley Clift put a local face on the war on poverty. Clift's documentary featured many of the clients currently being assisted by Access programs, as well as some of its employees. Among those interviewed was state Senator Mae Flexer (D-29), who has been a member of the Access board for many years. Flexer talked about working three jobs to get through college. Later, during a panel discussion, Flexer admitted that she had grown up in poverty. Those living in poverty need to be provided with more means for improving their lives, she said. "Access is as vital to the community as the residents they serve," said Flexer.


For more information about the services provided through the Access Community Action Agency, go to