Tara J. Melish


In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a Nationwide War on the

Sources of Poverty to "strike away the barriers to full participation" in

our society. Central to that war was an understanding that given

poverty's complex and multi-layered causes, identifying, implementing,

and monitoring solutions to it would require the "maximum feasible

participation" of affected communities. Equally central, however, was an

understanding that such decentralized problem-solving could not be fully

effective without national-level orchestration and support. As such, an

Office of Economic Opportunity was established - situated in the

Executive Office of the President itself - to support, through

encouragement, funding, and coordination, the development and

implementation of community-based plans of action for poverty

alleviation, as identified and prioritized by the poor themselves.

This Article urges a return to this practical, locally-responsive, yet

federally-orchestrated orientation of U.S. social welfare law. It argues that

while the regulatory and political context of the 1960s provided

inauspicious ground for the early "maximum feasible participation"

policy to effectively take root, four decades later, two broad paradigm

shifts have yielded a new, more fertile opportunity framework. The first

involves the shift in U.S. regulatory law away from earlier command-andcontrol

structures favoring fixed rules and centralized enforcement,

toward a New Governance model that privileges decentralization,

flexibility, stakeholder participation, performance indicators, and guided

discretion. The second is the concurrent paradigm shift in U.S. social

movement approaches to poverty - what I call "New Accountability" -

which similarly promotes local voice and inclusive participation,

performance monitoring around human rights standards, and negotiated

policymaking (rather than non-negotiable material demands and mass

confrontation, the preferred tactics of 1960s activism). Supported by a

renewed U.S. interest in collecting and reporting performance indicators

for government programs, these two shifts converge to create a theory and

policy-based environment in which it is both practically feasible and

normatively coherent to re-embrace the participatory orientation of the

early "War on the Sources of Poverty" strategy.

The challenge for U.S. social welfare rights law, I argue, is how to bring

these two complementary paradigms together in constructive synergy to

mount a 21st century battle against poverty. A set of national

subsidiarity-based institutions to support this effort is proposed, each

mandated to orchestrate and competitively incentivize targeted antipoverty

efforts by all social stakeholders, while opening new institutional

spaces for the active participation of the poor in all aspects of meeting the

nation's poverty reduction targets.