Theses Doctoral

The Forgotten Fight: Waging War on Poverty in New York City, 1945-1980

Woodsworth, Michael

This dissertation recounts how community groups in postwar New York City tapped into growing government engagement with urban problems, which culminated in President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 declaration of "unconditional war on poverty." Focusing on the discourse among grassroots activists, social reformers, and city officials, I argue that the War on Poverty has been misunderstood by scholars inattentive to the rich exchange of ideas that occurred at street level. I show how local policy innovations flowed upward and influenced elites -- intellectuals, politicians, bureaucrats -- before being projected back downward and adapted anew. Viewing the War on Poverty from the ground up not only provides a fresh perspective on its well-documented failures; it also turns up hidden successes. My narrative unfolds in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the drive to end poverty dovetailed with a vibrant civil-rights movement. A majority-black area of roughly 400,000 people, Bed-Stuy housed a mix of desperately poor tenants and upwardly mobile homeowners. I emphasize the policy role played by members of the area's middle class, especially women, who acted as brokers between politicians and the poor people whose empowerment the War on Poverty ostensibly promoted. In the 1950s, activists in Bed-Stuy partnered with the municipal government of Robert F. Wagner, Jr., to tackle pressing issues -- juvenile delinquency, deteriorated housing, capital flight -- through experimental social-work techniques and a new model of neighborhood-based planning. Such partnerships laid the groundwork for the federal Community Action Program, the centerpiece of the War on Poverty. Though Bed-Stuy's official Community Action Agency ultimately succumbed to mismanagement, bureaucratization, and internal strife, it did spawn several social-uplift and educational programs that helped to empower local residents, especially black women. By the late 1960s, Bed-Stuy's poverty warriors were searching for new ways of institutionalizing the federal antipoverty commitment and gaining a measure of community control. They found one answer in an alliance with Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who helped launch the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the country's first Community Development Corporation. Restoration drew unprecedented federal funds and soon pioneered influential strategies of brownstone revitalization and local business development. As it evolved in the 1970s, Restoration reflected the dual goals of employing low-income residents and retaining Bed-Stuy's middle class -- a difficult balancing act, especially in a moment of accelerating disinvestment, mounting crime, and waning political will. Nevertheless, Restoration provided a model that community groups nationwide would follow into the 1980s and beyond.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Jackson, Kenneth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 1, 2013