Robert S. (Butch) Miller


The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 served as the initial step in the war on poverty aspect of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program. The objective was to help the poor by enabling them to pull themselves from the grip of poverty. An additional aim was to improve the role of the federal government in the improvement of education.

Historical context

This plan was intended to prepare more of our citizens for successfully competing in an expanding economy. President Johnson reflected the belief in an opportunity based approach to the poverty problem in America. Poverty victims should have a chance for a better future through improved skills, better training, and hard work. In the midst of the civil rights movement, this law focused on the more traditional idea of equipping people for the task and helping them to overcome conditions of poverty through their own initiative. The growing challenge to this idea was the alternative view of a guaranteed income for all, allowing people to work if they chose and to keep the earnings.

About the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964

The law combined some new programs with existing programs of service by professionals, like VISTA, Job Corps, and Head Start, with a different approach called community action programs. Legislation created a state/federal partnership with concentration on the most fundamental of educational skills for adults who had not completed the secondary education. A portion of this legislation was called adult basic education, and was aimed at increasing adult literacy. Most of the programs were conducted by the states with funding by grants from the Office of Economic Opportunity. Grant amounts were based upon the number of people age eighteen and above that finished no more than five grades of school. There were no federal funds for teacher training in connection with these programs.

Special features of the program tried to increase employability of young men and women in the 16-21 age group. The goal was to help every person function at the highest level of their ability. Basic education, vocational training, and work study programs were major components to help reach these goals. Community Action Agencies followed a format that included community evaluations of needs and strengths, detailed plans and strategies to combat poverty, varieties of direct services, involvement on behalf of low-income people, and formation of partnerships with other organizations in the community. Specific areas of need included job training, health care, housing, or economic development.

The Economic Opportunity Act was borne of worthy motives. At the top, it was staffed by capable leadership. Sergeant Shriver was a wise choice to head up the Office of Economic Opportunity, and he was diligent in pursuit of the goals of the program. Despite some success and longevity for some programs, funding was never sufficient. The escalation of the war in Vietnam further depleted funds that might have been available. Early in the presidency of Richard Nixon funding was stopped for the community control movement. Frustration soon replaced early optimism. This movement never regained the high ground it had enjoyed with the law's inception.


Harcourt College Publishers

Gareth Davies
University Press of Kansas

History of Education; selected moments of the 20th Century
By Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Torontio