Model City: The War on Poverty, Race Relations, Catholic Social and Activism in 1960s Pittsburgh (1)

By Heineman, Kenneth J. | The Historian, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Model City: The War on Poverty, Race Relations, Catholic Social and Activism in 1960s Pittsburgh (1)


Heineman, Kenneth J., The Historian


NEARLY forty years after the passage of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act that launched President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, postmortems continue to issue forth. Some commentators, such as political scientists J. David Greenstone and Paul Peterson, have hailed the War on Poverty as a success to the extent that blacks became a fully mobilized political force within the Democratic Party. Others, including historian Fred Siegel, have concluded that the War on Poverty failed. A few historians, notably Gareth Davies and Irwin Unger, have argued that the War on Poverty contributed to the fraying of the New Deal electoral coalition. The War on Poverty has also been credited by such commentators as Myron Magnet and Charles Murray with destroying the work ethic among the poor, promoting crime, and, as a consequence, accelerating the flight of jobs and whites from the cities. (2)

Explanations for the failure of the War on Poverty, some of which are not mutually exclusive, include: too little funding; too much liberal political capital expended on the divisive Vietnam War; the hostility of Democratic politicians who resented the mobilization of impoverished blacks; a white, often urban Catholic, backlash against rising rates of crime, illegitimacy, and welfare dependency among minorities; the disappearance of good-paying entry-level jobs in the inner city; black discontent with seeming half-measures that failed to solve the problems of discrimination and lack of jobs; and a "culture of poverty" that hampered the ability of the poor to plan for the future. (3)

The experiences of Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, and Syracuse loom large in accounts of the ground action in the War on Poverty. Chicago mayor Richard Daley's contempt for antipoverty activists and desire to control federal poverty funds were legendary. In contrast to Chicago, activists in San Francisco and the Black Panthers in Oakland captured control of the Community Action Program (CAP) funds provided through the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). For their part, Syracuse activists in 1965 used part of a $300,000 OEO grant to fund demonstrations against the city's Housing Authority. (4)

Remarkably, Pittsburgh, which had approximately seventy-seven thousand poor white and black residents (13 percent of the city's population), has received little scholarly attention. Given its high proportion of needy residents and the comprehensive application it presented to the OEO, Pittsburgh was the first of ten cities to receive CAP funds in 1964. A year later, OEO director Sargent Shriver praised Pittsburgh's political, labor, and religious leadership for creating the best CAP in America. Indeed, Shriver was so impressed with Pittsburgh--a city that he hailed as a national model for promoting the "maximum feasible participation" of its citizens in combating poverty--that the OEO raised the Iron City's allocation from $1.5 million in 1964 to $7.3 million in 1965. Shriver also credited Pittsburgh's antipoverty program in 1967 for preventing destructive riots like those that had torn apart Detroit and Newark. (5)

In many ways Pittsburgh was Shriver's "model city": a place where the Democratic machine encouraged academics, blacks, labor leaders, civil liberties attorneys, and Roman Catholic clergy to work with the OEO to improve housing, job training, and education for the poor. Like Chicago and San Francisco, however, Pittsburgh experienced the same tensions over crime and protest that strained relations between activists and working-class Catholics. Taking both Pittsburgh's position as a "model city" and the tensions that disturbed that model, this article will examine the course of Pittsburgh's War on Poverty, suggesting that the divisions within the Pittsburgh CAP, and the indications of some white resentment against the War on Poverty, reflected a more strongly expressed national backlash against the Great Society in general. …

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