The War on Poverty: Observations From a CED Field Practitioner – Marcus Weiss

Reflecting on innovations catalyzed by the War on Poverty inspires a comparison with the energy in nurturing job creation for low-income community residents by REDF and the social enterprise field. In 1966, New York Mayor John Lindsay, accompanied Senators Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy through the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. They were challenged to talk to community organization leaders about mobilizing programmatic innovations rather than perpetuating a history of studying this economically distressed Brooklyn community.[1] Senators Javits and Kennedy soon thereafter sponsored amendments to the Economic Opportunity Act to finance “…special programs…to have an appreciable impact on such communities and neighborhoods in arresting tendencies for dependency, chronic unemployment and rising community tensions.”[2]

The initial model for the community economic development (CED) “movement” was supported by the legislation which launched two sister entities known as the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development and Services Corporation. Community development corporations (CDCs) were envisioned as being “…created and controlled by people living in impoverished areas for the purpose of planning, stimulating, financing and, when necessary, owning and operating businesses that will provide employment income and a better life for the residents of these areas.”[3]

Originally described as the “Special Impact” program, in the late 60s $20 million was provided initially through a mix of federal agencies including the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), Labor, Agriculture and the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Ultimately regulations also facilitated access by CDCs to undertakings operated by the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development which were mandated to “…ensure availability [of programs] to community development corporations.” Nineteen seventy two amendments to the Economic Opportunity Act known as “Title VII” particularly referenced economic and business development programs “…to start, expand, or locate businesses…to provide employment and ownership opportunities for residents.”

The initial Title VII CDCs had capital, sophisticated staff and access to national technical assistance specialists, particularly from the Cambridge-based Center for Community Economic Development (the demise of which inspired the creation of our organization, EDAC, in 1981). Recently reflecting on those early programmatic years was one of the nation’s most senior directors, Al Caldarelli, Esq., the President of the East Boston Community Development Corporation which was one of three Boston-based “Title VII” CDCs (along with the Greater Roxbury Development Corporation and the Chinese Economic Development Council). Mr. Caldarelli (who began his career at EBCDC in 1971) recalled having a 21-member staff totally funded by OEO with $800,000 for administrative support, skilled professionals in departments focused on planning, business development, real estate development, social service delivery and community advocacy. His wistful recollections also depicted $2 million being deposited in the CDC’s local bank account for pending or future job creation enterprises or investments for which federal agency approval would subsequently flow upon submissions of pertinent business planning documents.

Despite cautionary tales about resource shifting to intermediaries and lending entities, trade association collapse and human capital constraints, “mature” practitioners like myself have become encouraged by the infusion into our “social enterprise” sector of top young talent with MBAs and urban planning degrees and practical business experience. Many of these individuals are flocking to programs such as REDF and Wholesome Wave (a comparably admirable pioneering healthy food advocacy and funding entity). Their respective work in nurturing job creation for some of our hardest-to-serve populations merits optimism about emerging “movements” where individuals currently seem as motivated about social justice as folks were in the 60s and 70s.

–Marcus Weiss, Esq., is the President of the Boston-based Economic Development Assistance Consortium (EDAC). During the initial decade of the War on Poverty, mentors from Legal Services, academia and the community economic development “movement” inspired him to focus his career on job creation endeavors, neighborhood revitalization, minority business inclusionary efforts and “social enterprises” by providing technical assistance, access to targeted financial resources and public policy innovations for “economically challenged” communities around the nation. Among his co-authored best practice publications are “Workforce Development Networks: Community-Based Organizations and Regional Alliances” (Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA) and “Rethinking National Economic Development Policy” (U.S. Department of Commerce/EDA, Washington, DC). EDACMark@aol.com, http://edacweb.com

This is an abridged version of the full article which can be found on EDAC website.

This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.

[1] “Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Restoration Corporation: Case Study of a Community Economic Development Program.” Hillard Pouncy, (1981), as reported in Urban Problems and Community Development. Ronald F. Ferguson and William T. Dickens, Eds. (1999).

[2] 42 U.S.C. 2763 as published in 1974 in The Lawyers Manual on Community-Based Economic Development. National Housing and Economic Development Law Project (today known as the Insight Center for Community Economic Development).

[3] Geoffrey Faux. CDCs: New Hope For the Inner City, 29. (1971) as quoted in The Lawyers Manual on Community-Based Economic Development  Ibid.