Maximum Feasible Participation … or Manipulation?
and administered with the maximum feasible participation of residents of the areas and members of the groups served.” 2 The essence of maximum feasible participation can best be summed up by Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s testimony before Congress urging the passage of this bill: “The institutions which affect the poor [operate] far outside their control. They plan programs for the poor, not with them. Part of the sense of helplessness and futility comes from the feeling of powerlessness to affect the operation of these organizations. The community action programs must basically change these organizations by building into the program real representation for the poor. This bill calls for, "maximum feasible participation of residents." This means the involvement of the poor in planning and implementing programs: giving them a real voice in their institutions.” 3 The law established over a thousand federally funded Community Action Agencies that administered local community action programs. 4 Federal dollars flowed directly to these grassroots organizations, bypassing state and local governments. 5 Communities used federal dollars to fund direct action, including rent strikes and sit-ins, and developed new programs, like Head Start. Low-income community members served on the Community Action Agencies’ boards and were employed to administer programs. 6 It was a first of its kind of federal experiment in allowing those served by the welfare bureaucracy some ownership and administration of it. The effort to ensure maximum feasible participation was short-lived. Threatened by the newly empowered poor, policymakers worked to progressively defund and dismantle these community-based anti-poverty programs. What began as a genuine attempt to empower the poor turned into “participation without redistribution of power, [allowing] the power holders to claim that all sides were considered but make it possible for only some sides to benefit. It maintain[ed] the status quo.” 7
Co-optation theory can help us understand why “maximum feasible participation” failed. Co-optation refers to the process by which powerholders respond to a threat to the status quo by neutralizing or absorbing movements that seek change. 8 Social movements that are co-opted will work with powerholders but gain no advantages from this partnership 9 . ‘Powerholders' are defined by scholars as individuals within powerful institutions—such as government agencies, foundations, and nonprofits—with the power to make decisions that challengers to the status quo seek. 10 The following sections use foundational co- optation theory to illustrate a three-stage model of how co-optation emerges in child welfare reform spaces. Stage One: A Threat to the Status Quo Emerges Co-optation begins when community mobilization presents a threat to the status quo. ______________ 3 United States, Congress, House Committee on Education. Economic Opportunity Act Amendments of 1967. Government Printing Office 1967. 4 Rubin, Lillian B. “Maximum Feasible Participation: The Origins, Implications, and Present Status.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 385, 1969, pp. 14–29. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/ stable/1037533. 5 Bailey, Martha J., and Nicolas J. Duquette. "How Johnson Fought the War on Poverty: The Economics and Politics of Funding at the Office of Economic Opportunity." The Journal of Economic History, vol. 74, no. 2, 2014, pp. 351-388. 6 Naples, Nancy A. “Contradictions in the Gender Subtext of the War on Poverty: The Community Work and Resistance of Women from Low Income Communities.” Social Problems, vol. 38, no. 3, 1991, pp. 316–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/800602. 7 Sherry R. Arnstein (1969) A Ladder Of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35:4, 216-224, DOI: 10.1080/01944366908977225 8 Coy, Patrick G., and Timothy Hedeen. “A Stage Model of Social Movement Co-Optation: Community Mediation in the United States.” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, 2005, pp. 405–35. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/ stable/4120946. 9 IBID. 10 Markus Holdo (2019) Cooptation and non- cooptation: elite strategies in response to social protest, Social Movement Studies, 18:4, 444-462, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2019.1577133
12 | FIJ Quarterly | Summer 2022
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