Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Authentic Participatory Engagement: Community Action and the Foundational Principle of Maximum Feasible Participation

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Authentic Participatory Engagement: Community Action and the Foundational Principle of Maximum Feasible Participation

Article excerpt

As a central component of the 1960s War on Poverty, the Community Action Program (CAP) mandated the maximum feasible participation (MFP) of the communities being served. Communicated in Title II of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), inherent in this foundational principle of MFP was the conviction that the poor should be afforded the opportunity to play an active role in the design, implementation, and monitoring of the nation's anti-poverty programs (Adler, 1994). The goal was to build community and, through the co-production of services with the poor, enlist residents, public and private organizations, and elected officials in a joint fight against poverty. The EOA provided federal funding to incentivize the growth of independent neighborhood organizations who were charged with the building of these structures of co-production from the bottom up. Now referred to as local Community Action Agencies (CAAs), these organizations were to be, as articulated by the director of the newly formed Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the prime offensive weapon in the War. MFP, then, was to be their guiding norm and ammunition in combatting both the localized causes and consequences of poverty.

The MFP mandate was, in part, an audacious experiment in extending the democratic principle of local, participatory selfgovernance to socially disadvantaged, poor populations. Existing policy solutions were not working and, as intimated by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (as cited by Melish, 2010, p. 22), a welfare infrastructure that "plans programs for the poor, not with them" would no longer be acceptable. Promoting social and political inclusion, this was an effort to reduce and ultimately eliminate racial discrimination, marginalization, and other social inequities that many had begun to realize were at least partially responsible for the persistence of poverty. MFP was a response to the increasingly aggressive, and somewhat adversarial, demands for civic engagement and citizen empowerment by some influential scholars and community organizers of this period (Alinsky, 1969; Harrington, 1962; Piven and Cloward, 1993).

By 1968, over 1600 CAAs had been established, which left the local elites decidedly nervous and upset the balance of power in many communities (Miller and Rein, 1969; Moynihan, 1969). Conflict ensued over who should run these local programs and the political support for this effort waned. The CAP, as John Wofford of the OEO wrote (as cited by Adler, 1994, p. 563), "was attempting to reach community consensus at a time when race, politics, and poverty were pulling communities and the nation apart." Patrick Moynihan (1969), a member of the Department of Labor and the presidential task force planning the War, was quite pessimistic and pointed out that these efforts were "rent with little quarrels" and had produced "organized ghetto political activity" and protests that, for many of the nation's communities, did more harm than good. Largely influenced by Moynihan's assessment, many declared the MFP mandate a failed democratic experiment that was undone by the social and political context of the 1960s (Rubin, 1969; Strange, 1972). Yet, from the vantage point of the early 21st century, this declaration may have been premature and inaccurate.

As a possible example for other community-level initiatives interested in rectifying social inequities and to help spark a renewed interest in the principle of MFP, this article raises the following question. How well does the 21st century CAP foster authentic participatory engagement and, thereby, meet the spirit of MFP? After introducing a conceptual framework that defines the spirit of MFP and offering a brief review of the overall approach and methods of this study, the remainder of this article investigates the above question at the national, state, and local levels of the 21st century CAP. At the local level, this includes three illustrative examples of the power of MFP as a principled approach to advancing social equity through authentic participatory engagement. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.