News and analysis
April 17, 2015

Video: a War on Poverty Veteran Seeks Renewed Attention to the Plight of the Poor

Fifty years ago, Pablo Eisenberg was helping to set up the programs that put President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty into effect. Now 82 and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership, he worries that the benefits of the antipoverty crusade, both to nonprofits and the country at large, have not been fully appreciated.

"It was probably the greatest leadership-development program in the history of this country," he says. "It provided a huge number of opportunities and jobs for people from minorities and low-income whites who had never had a chance to succeed or fail."

He adds: "It was never written up, it was never acknowledged, but it has been a major factor in the growth of our society."

Mr. Eisenberg served from 1965 to 1968 in the Office of Economic Opportunity, the federal agency that administered many of the War on Poverty’s key efforts: the Community Action Program, Head Start, the Job Corps, Legal Services, and Volunteers in Service to America (Vista). He began as director of Pennsylvania operations, then became deputy director of research and demonstration.

The agency was headed by Sargent Shriver, whom Mr. Eisenberg calls "a charismatic leader that one could get behind and really respect and admire."

Mr. Eisenberg reflects fondly on the working atmosphere he found there. "It recruited lots of young people, gave them a lot of leeway in administering programs. There was a lot of camaraderie, a willingness to work long hours. We worked seven days a week, many times 14 to 15 hours a day and never thought twice about it."

‘A Sense of the Underdog’

Mr. Eisenberg joined the agency following stints with the U.S. Information Agency and Operation Crossroads Africa, a volunteerism nonprofit that was a precursor to the Peace Corps.

Before that, he was a professional tennis player, competing in Wimbledon and winning the men’s doubles title in the 1953 Maccabiah Games, the Jewish competition.

After leaving the Johnson administration, Mr. Eisenberg served for 23 years as executive director of the Center for Community Change, which advocates for low-income people.

He helped organize the Donee Group, a coalition of public-interest nonprofits set up to counter the "establishment" nature of the Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs, a panel set up by John D. Rockefeller III in 1973 to recommend ways to strengthen philanthropic giving. The coalition then set up the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a foundation watchdog that promotes giving to help society’s least advantaged people.

Mr. Eisenberg, now a Chronicle columnist, says his career choices were influenced by his "upbringing as a minority Jewish person in a sea of Wasps in my high school in Millburn, N.J. While I never felt any discrimination," he says, "I did have a sense of the underdog, the feeling that one had to fight those who did not have equal chances in society."

He also credits his parents, who "always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted regardless of whether it was a money-making activity or not," and speakers from South Africa he heard in college who talked about the importance of fighting apartheid and other injustices.

Accomplishments and Failings

Mr. Eisenberg is now trying to draw more attention to the War on Poverty’s accomplishments, including the substantial dent it made in the country’s poverty rate.

But he acknowledges its failings, too, including corruption and lack of accountability in some programs — something he battled in Philadelphia when he directed the Pennsylvania operations of the Office of Economic Opportunity. President Johnson eventually became preoccupied with the Vietnam War, he says, and "when Sargent Shriver left, he left unfortunately a vacuum of leadership that was never replaced."

He says the administration also defined poverty too narrowly when it came to qualifying for help. "They left out as recipients low-income whites, blue-collar people who subsequently felt alienated from these programs, which many of them considered minority programs or poor people’s programs. That gulf unfortunately continues to this day."

To read more of Mr. Eisenberg’s views about the War on Poverty, see his articles for Georgetown’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership and for The Chronicle.

Send an email to Idit Knaan and Suzanne Perry.