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The Office of Economic Opportunity was the agency responsible for administering most of the War on Poverty programs created as part of United States President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society legislative agenda.
Programs such as VISTA, Job Corps, Community Action Program, and Head Start (though that program was later transferred to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare) were all administered by the OEO. It was established in 1964, but quickly became a target of both left-wing and right-wing critics of the War on Poverty.
President Nixon's attempt to impound appropriated funds for OEO was ruled unconstitutional by Judge William B. Jones on April 11, 1973 in a case brought by Local 2677, AFGE; West Central Missouri Rural Dev. Corp and the National Council of OEO Locals. Reauthorization in 1975 changed the name to the Community Services Administration (CSA) but retained the agency's independent status. On Sept 30, 1981, the Ominibus Reconciliation Act of 1981 transferred functions via the Community Services Block Grant to the states and a small staff in the Office of Community Services in the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington and abolished the regional offices along with some 1000 jobs.
President Richard Nixon's appointment of Howard Phillips as Director of OEO in January 1973 touched off a national controversy culminating in a court case in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (Williams v. Phillips, 482 F.2d 669) challenging the legality of Phillips' appointment.
Although OEO/CSA was transferred to the Office of Community Services in HHS by President Reagan in 1981, most of the agency's programs continued to operate either by HHS or by other federal agencies.
Native Americans in the United States were among the main beneficiaries of the Office of Economic Opportunity when it was first established. R. Sargent Shriver, then director of the OEO, contacted Dr. James Wilson in 1964 and asked if he would lead a department that solely concentrated on poverty within Indian Country. Dr. Wilson accepted, and after taking the position, began to act as "small 'a' activist and a "big 'M' Manipulator" to "manipulate the system" of federal government dealings with Native Americans so Indians would eventually gain more political power. The OEO prided itself on flexibility and creativity and allowed Indian tribes to receive direct funding. The key OEO institution was the community action program (CAP), bestowed with the unusually energetic congressional mission statement of “a program which mobilizes and utilizes resources... in an attack on poverty.” An unofficial allegiance with the National Congress of American Indians gave the OEO political clout that helped pass the CAPs, despite their bitter relationship with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribal CAPs dedicated the largest amount of funding to Head Start for preschoolers and home improvement. Other areas of emphasis included educational development, legal services, health centers, and economic development.
One of the greatest accomplishments of the OEO Indian effort took place in Navajo country. The Rough Rock Demonstration School rose from the community’s will to give its children education that both respected and integrated Navajo culture and prepared young people for dealings with the majority society. The school was run by Navajo and it became the first wholly Indian-controlled school since the federal government took over the schools of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma in the late 19th Century. Rough Rock’s success led directly to the creation of the Navajo Community College (now Diné College), the first modern tribal college, and a movement that in time expanded to more than thirty higher education institutions.
The OEO projects injected Indian country with confidence and determination and brought many benefits, but the generalized gifts of leadership and tribal control proved equally enduring. Although many problems were encountered along the way, more than a thousand Indian people, never before given the chance to assume major responsibilities, took the reins of OEO projects and then moved into leadership positions in the tribal councils, national and regional Indian organizations, and federal and state offices. American Indians had finally been given the power to either succeed or fail.
Although the Office of Economic Opportunity was abolished in 1981, its effects are still being felt today. Its programs have been curtailed or scattered among other federal agencies, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services. Many states have adopted an OEO that serves to increase the self-sufficiency of their citizens, strengthen their communities, and eliminate the causes and symptoms of poverty.