Skip to content
View Featured Image

Ghost Stories Of Capitalism: Watching The Shutters Of Austerity Close

Above Photo: National Welfare Rights Organization activists marching in Washington, DC, May 1968. Jack Rottier Collection / George Mason University Libraries.

My Time At A War On Poverty Program Provided An Inside-Look Into The Ravages Of Neoliberal Capitalism.

They Continue To Devastate The Poor And Working Class.

In 2013, I was a recent college graduate looking for my first “real” job as an adult. I had majored in social work and my $25,000 in student loans were quickly coming due. After three months in an AmeriCorps program where I made less than minimum-wage, I landed a caseworker job at the Tri-City Community Action Program (Tri-CAP) in the Boston-area city of Malden. It was a union job but only paid $28,0000 per year or less than $14 an hour. Like most in my generation, I was still living with family and took the job since it paid nearly double what I was making at my prior gig.

There were other qualities about the job that I was excited about. I had interviewed for union staff organizing positions but decided the lifestyle of grueling travel was not for me. Tri-CAP would allow me to dive into class struggle as a rank-and-file worker, and I quickly assumed shop steward duties for a small shop of five. I would also be working directly in the community serving the exploding homeless population in the area following the 2007-08 economic crisis. The agency served as a hub for working class people and the economically insecure to navigate their basic needs for housing, food, legal aid, and a host of social services. People who slept on the street, in shelter, or in “couch surfed” apartments with friends would come in droves for a safe place to just be during work hours.

Tri-CAP was a second-generation “War on Poverty” program that was birthed in 1978. The “War on Poverty” began in 1964 during the presidential administration of Lyndon Johnson. At the time, Johnson was faced with a problem. Urban rebellions led by mainly Black youth were sweeping the United States. The New Deal had failed to eliminate poverty and actually facilitated a growing divide between unionized workers and what some called the “under class,” an extremely poor and mainly unemployed section of the working class which was disproportionately represented in Black communities. Johnson said himself that the modest funding for anti-poverty programs was meant to “turn tax eaters into tax payers.”

Community Action Programs (CAP) emerged out of the “War on Poverty” and received modest grants from a range of federal agencies to keep their doors open. Community members and volunteers staffed the services. Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton worked at a CAP agency during the initial phases of the Black Panther Party. These programs complimented the newly institutionalized Food Stamp, Medicare and Medicaid programs and formed the rudiments of a social safety net. However, CAP agencies suffered from chronic underfunding from the outset.

By the end of the 1970s,U.S. capitalism entered its neoliberal phase where austerity and privatization reigned supreme. Federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were reduced to near non-existence. Welfare was eradicated all together in 1996 and tens of thousands of public housing units were demolished or privatized under the Bill Clinton administration. CAP agencies either shut their doors permanently or offered only the services that were supported by a mixture of private philanthropy and meagre government subsidy. It was out of this environment that Tri-CAP formed to address the growing problem of extreme poverty, addiction, and homelessness in the cities of Everett, Malden, and Medford.

By the time I arrived as a caseworker in the fall of 2013, Tri-CAP had already experienced years of shrinking state and federal funds. It attempted to make up for the shortage by finding alternative funding sources for programs such as Head Start. Finances became more complicated and there was insufficient staff to manage them. This was a kind of internal agency “secret” that was subject to much water cooler talk. Fear of layoffs or even closure grew as I entered union negotiations in the summer of 2014.

An ominous sign came when I was told by the Executive Director during a negotiations meeting that our raises would need to be slashed from a paltry 3 percent per year to 1 percent due to a funding shortfall. Of course, I didn’t believe him and asked the agency to open the books. Financial records revealed that the agency was indeed in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt. I wanted to make this a community issue and broaden the struggle but my UAW “business agent” tapped out. We settled for a one year contract that promised a raise of 1.5 percent with everything else remaining the same.

Little did I know that the sour feeling of loss I experienced during negotiations would only grow larger in the months to come. The Mobile Homeless Outreach Team (MHOT) was liquidated and I was laid off in December of 2014. Tri-CAP closed its doors entirely just days later. The feeling was surreal. Hundreds of people sleeping outside on the streets of the community were suddenly without a key lifeline.

I said goodbye to my most high-needs clients and attempted to connect them to services that could help continue the work that I would be unable to finish. One of my clients who slept outside even in the harshest of weather and suffered from severe alcohol use disorder had just been diagnosed with an esophageal mass, a fancy word for cancer. He cried in my cubicle when he was diagnosed. All I could do was connect him to a local hospital organization director who promised to follow his situation once we closed. I still think about him to this day.

A lot happened in my short 14 months at Tri-CAP. The staff was entirely working class and most resided or grew up in the community. Due to the precarity of the work, it was not uncommon for staff to have the very problems that we attempted to address for our clients. I bore witness to my co-worker losing her son to overdose. I watched my supervisor get racially profiled by cops within the agency’s four walls. Many of our clients would injure themselves on the premises due to their struggle with addiction, causing us to scramble for any possible way to avoid the police from showing up alongside the ambulance. On a post-work evening of drunken fun, a small group of us confronted the police chief who we caught harassing one of our most mentally ill clients.

The next month was one of the hardest of my life. Thrust into unemployment, I secured another job at a day shelter in the heart of downtown Boston. My start date wasn’t until after the new year, giving me ample time with my thoughts. Insomnia, irritability, sadness, anger, and depression tormented the open space that I had between jobs. Never before had I experienced the external pressures of neoliberal capitalism so directly. But there was little time to digest the experience. Rent was due.

I have thought about this experience periodically ever since. Sometimes the experience comes to mind when a memory rushes back from seemingly out of nowhere, other times it resurfaces out of reflection of my own personal history. It is an understatement to conclude that Tri-CAP hardened me. Despite already self-identifying as a communist upon entering Tri-CAP, I learned firsthand how quickly and easily the U.S.’s capitalist regime can take away vital services for the poor while Democrats and Republicans alike siphon trillions into bank bailouts, endless wars abroad, and mass incarceration. And we were powerless as workers and oppressed people to stop it.

Despair is a normal reaction to the disparities and crimes of the U.S. capitalist system and its cruel empire. After all, half of the population is in or at risk of poverty and the toxic stress that comes with it. But taken too far and despair can paralyze people into seeking individual solutions to collective problems of class exploitation. Working class, poor, and oppressed people need a vehicle that develops their power and capacity to confront exploitation collectively and educate them toward an understanding of the system of capitalism and imperialism that drives it. Barack Obama and now Joe Biden are teaching us that the Democratic Party is no such vehicle.

The Tri-CAP experience taught me that it is power, not reform, which is needed most in this moment of system-crisis. And in order to get power, we will need to develop an alternative to the establishment parties that is willing and ready to prepare for revolution.

Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.