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What is a Community Action Agency?

History of Community Action Agencies

On August 20, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in the Executive Office of the President. The programs launched by OEO ranged from Head Start and Job Corps to Senior Opportunities and Services (SOS), Legal Services and Community Economic Development. All had the same goal to help the poor break the cycle of poverty and advance to a fuller, more productive life.

Community Action Agencies help the poor in the areas of self-sufficiency, employment, housing, education, management, information, and referral. Over half the nation's Head Start programs are administered by CAA's, and most CAA's are heavily involved with Weatherization and Section 8 Rental Assistance Programs.

CAA's are a primary source of support for more than 38 million Americans living in poverty. For the estimated 12 million Americans below the poverty line, who do not receive welfare benefits - the working poor, intact families and childless adults – CAA's are their chief source of assistance. There are many rural areas and sections of urban American where the CAA is the only group able and willing to reach out to the poor.

"Maximum Feasible Participation"

Community Action was the cornerstone of the EOA, embodying these fundamental ideas: that the poor know best what their problems are and how best to allocate resources to correct them and that the poor need a hand up, not a hand out. Hence, the requirement for "maximum feasible participation of the poor" in the direction and work of Community Action Agencies was built into the organization: one third of the board of directors of Community Action Agencies are representatives of the poor, one third are public officials, and the other third are representatives of the broader community: including business, the clergy, labor, education, and the arts. Approximately three quarters of the CAA's are private, non-profit agencies and one quarter public agencies; that is, departments of local, city, or county government.

Local Community Action Agencies, like Saginaw County Community Action Committee, Inc. were the embodiment of this belief, and remain the centerpiece of the anti-poverty program.

The stated purpose of the EOA was to strengthen, supplement, and coordinate efforts "to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this Nation by opening to everyone the opportunity for education and training, the opportunity to work and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity."

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Local Initiative

Originally, CAA was given local initiative" funds to support locally designed and administered programs to combat poverty in their communities. As the years went by, the local initiative programs became more entrenched and the local CAA had less "free" money with which to start new programs. But, at the same time, other program funds became available, not only through Title II of the Economic Opportunity Act, but through other Federal and State agencies and departments as well.

By 1970 there were some 1,200 CAA's nationwide, serving areas in which 90 percent of the nation's poor resided. During the 70's, the number of CAA's nationally leveled off at about 1,000 as a result of consolidation of a number of small, rural, single county CAA's into larger multi-agencies, but the coverage actually increased to 95 percent of the nations counties.

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Community Services Block Grant

The Economic Opportunity Act, and with it the Community Services Administration, expired on September 30, 1981, but Community Action lives on under the Community Service Block Grant (CSBG), administered by the Office of Community Services in the Administration for Children and Families, HHS. Today, these 1,000 CAA's are spread through all fifty states, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Trust Territories, serving 95 percent of the nations counties. On average, seven percent of the CAA's funding comes from the CSBG; 93 percent comes from other Federal, State, local, and private sources.

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The Saginaw County Community Action Committee, Inc. links local residents, public officials and private organizations in systematic planning and problem solving. CAC provides a community wide response to local needs through targeted service delivery.

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Community Action is local people working together to solve community problems.