The Civil Rights Act of 1964 formally ended the Jim Crow era. The Act banned discrimination on the basis of race and sex in employment, education and housing. The next year Congress passed The Voting Rights Act, which outlawed practices that kept African Americans from voting in southern states. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 gave the federal government the ability to enforce nondiscrimination laws. These economic and legal reforms were intended to work together to provide a hand up to less prosperous Americans. And while poverty and race are not synonymous (there are far more whites and Hispanics living below the poverty line than blacks), the Civil Rights Act was meant to open up society and the economy to African Americans, other minorities and women. Later initiatives, such as affirmative action, attempted to expand the notion of civil rights into a more aggressive policy, especially in schools and the workplace. Read more about affirmative action.
Major funding for Great Society programs came through Community Action Programs. Congress bypassed state and local governments and provided direct funding to community groups throughout the country. The community action agencies at the local level were charged with leading the federal fight against poverty. More than 1,000 CAPs were created with boards comprised of one-third elected officials, one-third local business leaders, and one-third poor people (the law mandated that the poor have a seat at the table). The program was highly controversial. In some cities, such as Pittsburgh, anti-poverty activists eventually worked well with both the political establishment and poor communities. But in other areas, like Chicago, CAP activists ended up in a drawn out fight with the existing power structure, from the mayor to the police. Although financial support and public recognition has shrunk over the decades, there are still more than 1,000 community action agencies around the country focused on combating poverty.
This program lasted from 1966 to 1974. The basic idea was to reduce urban violence by empowering community leaders to make decisions about federal spending. The classic case is New Haven. It had fallen on hard times because of the movement of the middle class into the suburbs. City leaders decided to make New Haven a "slumless city-the first in the nation." New Haven's city government garnered a massive amount of federal money and embarked on a series of ambitious renewal projects, converting small commercial streets into car-friendly shopping malls and replacing tenements with modern high-rise apartment buildings. Yet by the late 1960s, it was clear the bulldozers had destroyed much of the city's remaining urban vitality, eliminating walkable streets, displacing a small business community, and concentrating the city's low-income households in mammoth housing projects. Instead of slumless cities, Model Cities created neighborhoods with high levels of concentrated poverty, unemployment, and crime. The model city idea fell into disfavor. Read a history of Model Cities from Chicago.
By the time Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 the notion of a "war" on poverty had fallen into deep disfavor among the public and legislators. Rather than a federally mandated war, the new thinking was that states should be given greater power to address poverty. The catchphrase was the "new federalism." The basic idea was not only to transfer much anti-poverty authority from the federal government to the states but also to shift anti-poverty efforts from cash assistance to work support. Reagan's new federalism reached its apogee with President Clinton's 1996 welfare reform. Read a report about the new federalism's effect on low-income families.