Jan 21, 2011

Some Thoughts About Sargent Shriver

Earlier this week Sargent Shriver died at the age of 95, prompting P. to say “oh, he’s in your dissertation, and he died, so that means your dissertation is really about history!” Thanks, P. But yes, Sargent Shriver does play a substantial role in my dissertation, which is about a topic people don’t usually associate with him – birth control – so it offers a pretty unique vantage point from which to think about his legacy.

Shriver was John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law and the first director of the Peace Corps. Within months of taking office, Lyndon Johnson appointed him to lead the war on poverty, which would become one of Johnson’s signature initiatives. Shriver helped shape the Economic Opportunity Act and was the first and most important director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which carried out a whole range of anti-poverty initiatives during the 1960s, from Head Start to job training to the creation of community health centers.

From within the OEO, Shriver led the distribution of the federal government’s first grants to set up family planning programs in poor communities, which is how I came to him. Although he was devoutly Catholic and initially opposed birth control (and always abortion), he came to recognize that locally-run family planning programs were an important way for poor women to take charge of their own lives.

That was his style: he believed in community control of anti-poverty programs and he was willing to experiment with nearly any strategy that could help ease poverty. Donald Baker, who was the general counsel of the OEO, later recalled of Shriver: “He just delighted having around him people who were able to work on new ideas and find  imaginative ways. The last thing he would ever have wanted to do was administer an agency that was handing out money in a routine way, putting it in an envelope and sending it off year after year after year.” He cared deeply about helping the poor in America and around the world, and he was willing to tempt controversy in order to establish the most effective programs. When controversy came his way as a result of the OEO’s family planning grants, he adamantly defended their importance.

Bono published an op-ed in the Times this week describing his memories of Sargent Shriver’s legacy from the 1960s. “His faith demanded action, from him, from all of us,” Bono wrote. “For the Word to become flesh, we had to become the eyes, the ears, the hands of a just God. Injustice could, in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Be Overcome.’” I'm not usually given to religious thinking, but this seems to me a pretty eloquent statement of all of our responsibilities to help make the world a better place. 

Sargent Shriver’s death this week is particularly striking because it comes at the same time as the Republicans prepare to eviscerate many of today’s poverty assistance programs. The House Republican Study Committee released a report a few days ago outlining a “Spending Reduction Act of 2011” which purports to reduce federal spending by $2.5 billion over the next 10 years. How? By cutting a lot of programs important to the poor, especially women. Proposed eliminations include, incidentally, family planning funding, and also the Legal Services Corporation (which provides lawyers for the poor, most of whom are women seeking help with domestic violence, custody, and eviction cases), the Community Development Fund, and the Hope VI program to renovate and restore public housing. The Committee would also like to eliminate various environmental programs, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, high speed rail grants, and public financing of presidential elections.

So, WWRSSS? What Would R. Sargent Shriver Say? The war on poverty was truly a high point in our nation’s history of anti-poverty efforts. It was a time when everything was on the table: from the highest levels of the federal government came the mandate to experiment with lots of anti-poverty initiatives to see what worked. Contrary to some conservative talking points, this was not just about giving out cash. Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying he wanted to give “a hand up, not a handout,” and he told an aide during the launch of the war on poverty, “Now, you tell Shriver, no doles. We don’t want any doles.” The whole effort was based on a belief that poverty had to be attacked on all fronts, and that the only organization capable of such a “war” was the federal government. And that came from a foundational understanding that the most affluent nation in the world had a responsibility to guarantee a basic standard of living to all of its citizens, including the poorest. It’s up to us to carry on this legacy by fighting as hard as we can against today’s reactionary Republican proposals.

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