Who remembers Maximum Feasible Participation (MFP)?
MFP was a big part of the War on Poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson a half-century ago, before he wandered astray into escalation of that other war in SE Asia. A guiding principle in the community action program, which itself was the central organizing tool at the local level for all the anti-poverty programs.
Community Action (CAP) agencies were funded to develop local programs even as they oversaw some specific activities enacted by Congress in the Economic Opportunity Act. Like Head Start, for instance.
CAP agencies got funding with the proviso that the poor people would have a say in the work of the program, that there would be maximum feasible participation of residents of the area and members of the groups served. That was a big risk for the power brokers in Washington. A giant threat to the money and power controllers everywhere. The power brokers don’t like to share and Johnson’s program said they have to.
And, guess what? It was working. Working like the engine on your old pickup, two quarts low on oil. Running, but with enough heat causing friction for Tom Wolfe to write Mau Mauing the Flak Catcher in 1970 (I’m not remembering his long article very well at all, but it had something to do with the bureaucracy of urban social programs with MFP at their core). But it was working. People who had always been outside the systems, always on the receiving (or not) end, always scrambling just to have enough for the day, were becoming organized to change their circumstances. And that’s still a threat to those who have the money and power, who don’t like to share. That’s why the name Saul Alinsky still inspires fear among the haves and hope among the few have-nots who have ever heard about him.
The radical notion that people experiencing long term poverty should have a say in the solutions along with help to improve their lot was making a positive difference. The myth of failure is a propaganda from the powers who were threatened by its success.
It was doing a bit of good, and needed more years to become an established pattern. That did not happen, of course. We elected Richard Nixon in 1968. He named a young Congresscritter from Chicago’s affluent North Shore suburbs to head the Office of Economic Opportunity. A guy named Donald Rumsfeld. You heard that right, young folks. The very same known unknowns, unknown knowns creep. His idea of economic opportunity was to have us call collect, let folks in Washington refuse and leave a call back number. That would save the government money.
Community organizing then became suspect. MFP soon returned to scorn for welfare recipients. Start a myth of failed programs to hasten their death.
I tell all this history simply to say. Now is the time. It is time to try again. The new gilded age of widening disparity between the ultra-rich and everyone else calls us to try something different, something old that can be new again.
Let’s push for a new anti-poverty program to improve the life situations for the already impoverished and to stem the tide of middle class families falling into a new kind of impoverishment.
The War on Poverty didn’t fail, it was discarded by the naysayers who came into power in 1969. It was killed because of its growing success. The powers-that-be will never yield their privileged position willingly.
We don’t need another war. Period. No more wars on ideas. We do need a dramatic and emphatic end to the current war on the poor. We need to replace that sad notion with inclusion into the mainstream of marginalized Americans.