According to the U.S. Census, in 2019 the government set the poverty threshold at $13,300/yr for a one-person household, and $26,370/yr for a four-person household. Anyone earning that amount or less is considered below the poverty line. Poverty has been a problem in the United States since its foundation.
A society that aims to reward hard work creates a hierarchy almost by definition, and that hierarchical system always must push some people to the bottom, into poverty and hardship. The negative effects of poverty on the individual and on the family are far too numerous to list, and while poverty is difficult to endure, it is also practically impossible to escape, due to low minimum wages that are barely enough to live on and continually defeat the efforts of low income families to move their way up the hierarchy.
In response to heightened awareness of the trials undergone by the poor and destitute in our society, the Economic Opportunity Act was passed in order to help fight poverty in 1964. This act called for the formation of private or public nonprofit organizations labeled community action agencies.
The goals of a community action agency are to alleviate suffering caused by poverty, in all of its many forms. These agencies use their funds to instill a bit of hope into what often seems like a hopeless situation. These groups are formed as a special banding together of certain members of the community in order to bring the community as a whole together and support one another. As the people at Community Action At Work put it, “We are better when we work together.”
One of the most important ways community action agencies help their community is by offering housing relief. This usually takes the form of subsidized housing projects designed and built for low-income residents. In order to live in these housing projects, you usually need to fill out an application, and spots are unfortunately not always readily available. These housing projects often also include community spaces, such as basketball courts, play areas for children, and cultural centers.
Another priority for community action agencies is providing education for children of low-income or unemployed families. Children born into poverty are less likely to do well in school for any number of reasons, from lack of motivation or attention to being at greater risk for health problems that might impede learning. In order to attempt to offset the achievement gap between low-income students and richer students, many community action agencies offer early education programs. These programs take place in community centers and are free of charge to low-income families.
Employment is the primary route out of extreme poverty for most that manage to escape it, so community action organizations also design initiatives toward helping unemployed individuals find employment. This often takes the form of travel support, job training, or coaching on the interview process. Some community action agencies even employ workers in need of their services.
Community action agencies have been known to also give out emergency funding to individuals in extreme need. Other initiatives have included doling out independently controlled accounts with enough money in them to give families down on their luck a boost toward self-sufficiency. Financial counseling is also regularly offered by community action agencies, and other programs that aim to incentivize smart spending, like this program that promises to match the money an individual spends on a car, home, post-secondary education, or small start-up business venture.
Maintaining one’s health is extremely difficult without monetary resources, especially if one’s job does not offer health care. Community action organizations often offer aid in the form of emergency health services. They also tend to offer less intense forms of aid, such as programs directed towards hunger relief and access to healthy food. Community action agencies often host soup kitchens to feed hungry people in need of a warm meal.
Community action agencies get most of their budget federally funded. This federal funding comes from the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), which allocates a certain amount of money to each state based on poverty levels. The state then redistributes that money to community action agencies. Historically, this fund has been much larger than it is now — in 2011, under pressure from the Republican party to reduce the federal deficit, Obama announced a plan to halve the CSBG budget. Now, the CSBG operates on a measly $350 million per year. This change in funding has unfortunately crippled community action agencies across the country, limiting the impact they might have on their communities.
There are over 1000 community action agencies active in the United States. Finding the nearest one has never been so easy; simply head to communityactionpartnership.com and click Find Your CAA.