President Johnson created the Office of Economic Opportunity to spearhead the Great Society. The OEO's first leader was Sargent Shriver, formerly head of the Peace Corps, and JFK's brother-in-law. The OEO housed a wide array of programs, including Head Start and Job Corps. These agency's programs were deliberately designed to open up opportunities for poor people as opposed to transferring money to them. President Richard Nixon dismantled the agency in 1974. Its programs were moved to other federal agencies; a majority of those programs are still around.
VISTA stands for Volunteers in Service to America. It was the brainchild of President Kennedy and created by President Johnson in 1965. Middle-class volunteers worked side-by-side with low-income recruits from local communities under the guidance of Community Action Agencies. In its first year, two thousand volunteers moved into poor communities, doing everything from working with migrant workers in California to helping out at health clinics in Appalachia. VISTA went through several changes over the years and in 1993 it was incorporated into the sprawling network of Americorps volunteer programs. It's now called AmeriCorps VISTA and it focuses on fighting poverty in America.
Job Corps is the nation's largest and oldest vocational education program for poor young adults. Sixty thousand disadvantaged students learn job and career skills each year at 123 campuses across the country. Students can also earn a high school equivalency diploma (GED) and take classes on how to live independently.
The EITC is the nation's most successful and largest anti-poverty program for working families. President Ronald Reagan hailed the EITC, created in 1975, as the "best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress." The federal tax credit started out modestly, but has expanded over the decades. The EITC is credited with lifting an estimated 4 million people a year out of poverty. In 2010, low-income families with three or more children can get a credit of up to $5,666. The maximum credit is $5,036 for families with two children, and only $457 for those without children.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as the welfare reform act, was passed in 1996 with a bipartisan majority and signed by President Bill Clinton. It requires anyone receiving cash assistance to work or be training for work. It also restricts recipients to a five-year lifetime limit on federal cash benefits. Most of the people on welfare were single mothers. With the economy strong, welfare rolls declined by 60 percent in the years after the law was passed and the poverty rate sank to its lowest level since the '70s. The legislation also allowed states to devise their own ways to help move parents from welfare to work. The Great Recession has put pressure on cash-strapped states to cut back on workfare support programs. The unemployment rate of low-income workers has gone up. View recent data about unemployment. Many poor people are ineligible for workfare benefits. See a state-by-state breakdown of eligibility.