History of Community Action

History of Community Action

Living History of Community Action – Charles Braithwait and Charles McCann



What is Community Action?

In 1964, The Great Society, as envisioned by President Lyndon Johnson, was a sweeping plan to improve the lives of all Americans, regardless of their circumstances. Inspired by President Kennedy and his New Frontier, Johnson pledged to fulfill his promise of equal opportunity for all by enacting several comprehensive changes within the federal government. In August of that same year, the Economic Opportunity Act was signed into law by President Johnson creating the nationwide Community Action Network.

The War on Poverty

In 1963, shortly before he was assassinated, President Kennedy had asked his economic advisors to draw up some proposals to address the problem of American poverty. Johnson took up this charge after he succeeded Kennedy as President. In Johnson’s first State of the Union address in 1964, he called for an unconditional war to defeat poverty. He developed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The act included a variety of initiatives:

  1. Head Start
  2. Job Corps
  3. Work-Study program for university students
  4. VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) – a domestic version of the Peace Corps
  5. Neighborhood Youth Corps
  6. Basic education and adult job training
  7. CAPS (Community Action Programs) – CAPS turned out to be the most controversial part of the package, as it proposed the “maximum feasible participation” by poor people themselves to determine what would help them the most. CAPS were a radical departure from how government had run most social reform programs in the past.

The Start of Community Action

Community Action was a bold idea, especially for the federal government. It handed over control to the local level, so that programs were geared specifically for target population needs. This concept, “maximum feasible participation”, represented a new paradigm in the government and many sectors were wary of its innovative ideas. President Johnson selected a member of President Kennedy’s inner circle to head up the newly formed “Office of Economic Opportunity” –Sargent Shriver.

Shriver was head of Peace Corps in the Kennedy administration and married to Kennedy’s sister, Eunice. He had proved himself to be a capable leader and President Johnson admired his abilities. President Johnson, legendary for his acumen in recruiting key personnel, offered the position to Shriver and would not take no for an answer. Shriver was installed as the first head of the OEO in October 11, 1964 and was so until 1969.

The Economic Opportunity Act was amended (known as the Green Amendment) in 1967 to mandate the board structure of community action agencies, with complemented the earlier Quie Amendment which required the tripartite representation, including low-income participation.

In 1981, President Reagan introduced the Block Grant, which dramatically changed the way federal funding was distributed. Programs including Community Action, would now receive funding through the State Office of Community Action/Services and would be under more intense scrutiny then previous administrations. The Iowa Department of Human Rights Division of Community Action Agencies (DCAA) is the State CSBG Office in Iowa. DCAA also provides oversight and monitoring for the Weatherization Assistance Program, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Family Development and Self-Sufficiency program.

Over the past several years, federal funding to support the Community Service Block Grant has been challenged. However, Community Action remains an important safety net for many vulnerable individuals and families. Beginning in 2001, Community Action has improved their reporting through the Results Oriented Management and Accountability (ROMA) framework and continuously seeks ways to improve outreach and services. In 2015 more than 50 new Organizational Standards were established, in which all Community Action Agencies must be in compliance and State and Federal Accountability Measures were put into place.

Unique Characteristics of Community Action Agencies

  • BOARD STRUCTURE – CAAs are required to have a tripartite board consisting of equal parts of local private sector, public sector, and low-income community representatives.  This structure brings together community leaders from each of these groups to collaborate on developing responses to local needs. This allows for Maximum Feasible Participation in both the creation and administration of Community Action programs.
  • VOLUNTEER SUPPORT – The CAA network is one of the largest users of volunteer services in the country.
  • LEVERAGE FOR OTHER RESOURCES – In Iowa, every Community Service Block Grant (CSBG) dollar spent leverages nearly $32 of federal, state, local, and private contributions combined.
  • INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS – CSBG funds give CAAs the flexibility to design programs that address needs specific to individuals and the local community and to identify specialized resources that fit these needs.
  • LOW ADMINISTRATIVE COSTS – CAAs have very low administrative overhead costs (on average, between 7 and 12 percent).  Resources are invested directly in the community and families.
  • COMPREHENSIVE AND RESPONSIVE – CAAs respond quickly when a family or individual is in crisis to avoid costly long-term problems.  The highest priority is placed on helping people achieve permanent self-sufficiency.  In addition to emergency assistance, a major portion of CSBG expenditures is for coordination among various programs.
  • COMMUNITY AND FAMILY PROGRAMS – CAAs provide services that address the full range of family needs – from Head Start and other education and child development programs, to youth and adult employment and training, to services for seniors and the frail elderly.  Services are generally coordinated through a case manager or family development specialist.  Other CAA programs are designed to strengthen the local economy and develop the community’s infrastructure under the guidance of community leaders.
  • REACHING MILLIONS OF AMERICANS – CAAs provide services to more than a quarter of all Americans living in poverty and to several million more families with incomes only slightly higher than the poverty threshold every year.


The nation’s 1,000-plus Community Action Agencies are a robust, state and local force – reaching children and families in 99% of America’s counties with life-changing services that create pathways to self-sufficiency.