Has any U.S. government program ever failed as spectacularly and completely as Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty? I doubt it. Johnson’s project was hopelessly over-ambitious and, on top of that, badly designed. For one thing, Johnson relied on “community action” through which he tried to circumvent existing state and local power structures. The politicians were not amused. One might draw an analogy between Johnson’s approach and President Bush’s reliance on faith-based initiatives. However, there are important differences, one of which is that Bush hopes to rely on established church groups, whereas Johnson’s War on Poverty tended to look to con-men and street gangs.
The Job Corps is one of the few remaining fragments of the war on poverty. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my father was its director for a few years. In fact, he always took credit for saving the program from the axe that President Nixon intended to apply. Even so, my father’s stories didn’t necessarily make me a supporter of the program. The one I remember most vividly involved a Job Corps center that trained welders, and a shipyard in Alabama that kept rejecting the welders (mostly African-American) the center trained. The folks at the center claimed this was due to racism, but when my father talked to the man in charge of welding at the shipyard, he didn’t seem like a racist. He even agreed to spend a few days at the center. After spending that time, he told my father that the real problem wasn’t that the welders weren’t good enough to work at the shipyard; the problem was that the instructors weren’t good enough to work there. This gave even my socialist father some pause with regard to the government’s abililty to run effective training programs.
Over time, however, the Job Corps has gotten better at this, in part because it has partnered with private enterprise. That fact, and the bi-partisan support of Senators in states with centers, helps explain why the Job Corps is celebrating its 40th aniversity this year.
In today’s Washington Times, conservative writer Deborah Simmons describes the positive effect that a local Job Corps center here in the Washington, D.C. area is having on several area youngsters (whether the program is cost-effective, I can’t say). Simmons complains that President Bush is cutting $29 million from its budget. My father would complain too. But mostly he’d be relieved that the Job Corps now is just another entrenched government program that takes budget hits from time to time, but is never in danger of being eliminated. My guess is that the Job Corps will still be around in 40 more years.
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