President Lyndon Johnson created an army of social activists when he proclaimed America’s War on Poverty 50 years ago, and Deb Schimpf, while only 3 at the time, has spent much of the past three decades serving on the front lines of that conflict.
A Trenton, N.J., native who moved to the Utica area as a teenager and now lives in Scotia, Schimpf has been executive director of the Schenectady Community Action Program for 15 years. She has worked at SCAP in some capacity for 25 years, and earlier spent three years in the finance department of the Oneida County Action Program in Rome.
“My husband says I’m one of the generals in the War on Poverty,” said Schimpf, laughing, “but he loves me, so that’s OK. When I was younger, I never really knew what I wanted to do with myself, so yeah, I kind of stumbled onto this. But I love it now, and I am committed to it.”
Community action programs were formed as nonprofits by local business and community leaders around the country in response to LBJ’s State of the Union speech Jan. 8, 1964. The
goal was to help low-income people and those in poverty deal with issues such as housing, jobs, food, clothing and education.
Following Johnson’s initial call to arms, Congress enacted the Economic Opportunity Act on Aug. 20, 1964, creating community action programs, the Jobs Corp and Volunteers in Service to America. SCAP was formed about a year later, in December 1965.
“There is a community action agency in every county in New York state and there are 1,100 around the country,” said Schimpf. “Most of them were started up in those first few years. That was one of the successes of Johnson’s program: It went from vision to implementation just like that.”
The poverty rate decreased from 19 percent in 1964 to 11 percent in 1973, but has averaged around 13 percent over the past 25 years and is at 15 percent today.
“Our mission as I see it is to provide support to people who are struggling with poverty,” said Schimpf. “We try to help them meet their basic needs and then encourage them to develop a long-term plan with our support. We want to tackle the causes and symptoms of poverty.”
There are about 140 employees under Schimpf’s direction at SCAP, whose offices are in what used to be the Paramount Lounge building on Albany Street. As executive director, Schimpf also oversees the Head Start building on Bigelow Avenue and three other Head Start locations, as well as the Sojurn House on Union Street, a transitional residence for homeless mothers and their children.
While SCAP has many success stories to share, Schimpf concedes not everything works as planned.
“Things seldom work perfectly,” she said. “That’s why we have to work with people to stay motivated and remain involved with SCAP. Not one single person who is successful did it without a network.”
Schimpf appreciates the struggle those dealing with poverty go through. While she never has been fired from a job, faced an eviction notice or wondered where her next meal was coming from, things didn’t come easily for her.
“When I had to relocate with my then-husband from Utica to the Albany area, I had to quit my job with Oneida County [Action Program] and I cried,” said Schimpf. “It was a great job. When I got it, there was a lot of paperwork and administrative stuff to do, but I also had the opportunity to get involved in programming. That’s when I really fell in love with the field.”
When Schimpf’s boss in Oneida County, Treva Wood, took over as executive director in Schenectady, she offered Schimpf a position and told her to finish her education.
“She told me, ‘You’re a fabulous worker, but you want to look good on paper, too,’ ” remembered Schimpf. “So I went back to school, eventually finished my bachelor’s at Empire State College and worked the whole time. I was divorced, I had a child. It wasn’t easy, but I did it.”
Poor people, said Schimpf, are just as energetic and enthusiastic as she was.
“A lot of people are saying nasty things about people in poverty,” said Schimpf. “What can we do about it? Rather than attack those people or write a letter to the editor, I have to temper my feistiness. So, we tell them the good stories, and we have a lot of them.”
Long Story Short, part of SCAP’s website, celebrates the group’s 50th anniversary by documenting a dozen or so of its success stories.
“We have to give hope,” said Schimpf, “and that’s what our Long Story Short campaign is all about. We have to get in touch with our donors and let them know that many people are doing well. I have to have a positive message and motivate our staff, but I also have the responsibility to deal with the facts. I can’t be walking around with rose-colored glasses.”
According to Keith Houghton, director of Housing and Community Services at SCAP, Schimpf is well-equipped to handle all the financial issues nonprofits face.
“Deb has a real handle on the fiscal part of not-for-profits,” said Houghton, who has worked at SCAP for 21 years. “Where many agencies have fallen on hard times, she has a knack for making things run and keeping not-for-profits like SCAP afloat. While other groups have lost the ability to provide what they’re supposed to provide to the poor, we’re doing pretty well.”
Schimpf taking care of the money concerns allows her workers like Houghton and the rest of the SCAP staff to really take care of business.
“I worry about our resources and how there are a lot of people who have made this a career,” said Schimpf. “I take that very seriously because we’re asking people to do more each year and work harder and be smarter. And by the way, we can’t give them a cost-of-living increase. It’s a lot to worry about, but with the staff, it’s about who they’re working with right then and there. If they focus on that, then maybe we can get through all of this.”
Rev. Michael Hogan of St. Joseph’s Church in Schenectady is president of the board at SCAP and concedes Johnson’s War on Poverty seems to be losing ground.
“It seems to be going horribly everywhere,” said Hogan, who was ordained in Albany in 1965 and spent much of the first part of his career dealing directly with heroin users and alcoholics. “It’s an uphill battle right now. The economy is working against you, the city, the state. There’s such a systemic system in place, it gets very difficult sometimes to see any progress.”
That makes organizations like SCAP and people like Schimpf all the more important.
“Deb is outstanding, and how she keeps going, I just don’t know,” said Hogan. “She’s a real presence in our community and a big collaborator, which to me is very important. To get something really meaningful done, you have to reach out to other groups and other people, and Deb has a lot of energy to get those kind of collaborations started.”
Schimpf would like to form a partnership with a national leader, say a president, who would put poverty back in the national spotlight. The current administration has been a disappointment to her.
“When Obama was elected, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be great,’ ” she remembered. “We might actually have the opportunity to see what it was like in the ’60s, when there really was a poverty agenda. The stimulus act helped, but then we were hit by sequestration, and under this administration, the last three years have been harder than under previous administrations that weren’t viewed as being as supportive of programs like Head Start. I think the absence of a real position on poverty by this administration has hurt, and when the Congress actually does compromise on something, it’s not necessarily good for us.
“You hear how great it is that the Congress has reached an agreement on the Farm Bill, but the compromise that had to be made comes at the expense of poor people. They’re going to be cutting $9 billion dollars from food stamps. That kind of agreement doesn’t help poor people.”
Schimpf says despite the setbacks, she will continue the fight undaunted.
“I don’t feel it’s hopeless,” she said. “It won’t happen in my tenure, but maybe in the future.”