Impossible Democracy

The Unlikely Success of the War on Poverty Community Action Programs

By Noel A. Cazenave

Subjects: Political Sociology
Paperback : 9780791471609, 282 pages, June 2008
Hardcover : 9780791471593, 282 pages, July 2007

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Elite Competition, Community Action, and Democratic Theory in the Expansion of American Democracy
1. Professional Turf Battles in the Planning of the Mobilization for Youth Project
2. Sufficiently Vague: The Ford Foundation, Social Scientists, and Their Conceptualizations of Community Action
3. Community Action and Congressional Intent: The President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime
4. The Mobilization for Youth Proposal and the Project’s Dispute with Area School Principals
5. Challenging “Social Work Colonialism” in Harlem: The Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Associated Community Teams Proposals and Early Project Disputes
6. The HARYOU-ACT and Mobilization for Youth Project Crises of 1964
7. Black Protest and White Backlash: The Rise and Fall of Community Action in the War on Poverty
The Legacy of Impossible Democracy
Methodological Appendix

Explores how community action programs used federal funds to sponsor social protest–based community reform.


Honorable Mention, 2008 Gustavus Myers Book Award, presented by the Gustavus Myers Center for Human Rights in North America

Impossible Democracy challenges the conventional wisdom that the War on Poverty failed, by exploring the unlikely success of its community action programs. Using two projects in Manhattan that were influential precursors of community action programs—the Mobilization for Youth and the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited-Associated Community Teams—Noel A. Cazenave analyzes national and local conflicts in the 1960s over what the nature of community action should be. Fueled by the civil rights movement, activist social scientists promoted a model of community action that allowed for the use of social protest as an instrument of local reform. In addition, they advanced a more participatory view of how democracy should work, one that insisted local decision making not be left solely to elected officials and other powerful people, as traditionally done.

Noel A. Cazenave is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut and coauthor (with Kenneth J. Neubeck) of the award-winning Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America's Poor.


"…[a] compelling, ambitious, and thought-provoking book … Cazenave's analysis of CAP is a fresh and important testament to the complexity of social programs and the many challenges that lie ahead in efforts to advance participatory democracy. " — Social Service Review

"…provides a valuable and timely service in correcting exaggeratedly harsh criticisms of community action programs. " — American Journal of Sociology

"…provide[s] a picture of the recent American past that challenges current popular and political, if not scholarly, understandings of the first and only time in history Americans sought an end to poverty … [and] reassert[s] the role of politics and the state in dealing with economic forces and developments, a welcome reassertion in an era of increasing economic insecurity and globalization. " — Journal of Social History

"After dissecting the politicking, particularly in the New York state and mayoral contexts, Cazenave ends up having demonstrated pragmatically how community action really became embedded successfully in community settings nationwide defying pacification attempts. " — Myers Book Commentary

"…breaks new ground in political sociology, democratic theory, the sociology of organizations, and public administration. " — CHOICE

"Noel Cazenave argues persuasively that these much-maligned programs, forged in the vortex of powerful social movements, were in fact a remarkable political experiment, with lasting effects that enlarged American democracy. This book will change the way we view the 1960s. " — Frances Fox Piven, author of Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America

"Cazenave brings to this subject a fresh approach as an historical sociologist as much concerned with the top-down as the bottom-up perspective on the programs' validity and consequences. He takes New York City as the focus of his analysis but teases out the larger meaning of his local case. And he challenges the failure consensus, a stand that should revive interest in what many see as a closed chapter in LBJ's War on Poverty. " — Zane L. Miller, author of Visions of Place: The City, Neighborhoods, Suburbs, and Cincinnati's Clifton, 1850–2000

"Interesting and compelling, this new take on the topic addresses questions of public policy and science and democracy that have become central in several allied fields, such as policy studies, political science, sociology, and social work. " — Alan F. Zundel, author of Declarations of Dependency: The Civic Republican Tradition in U. S. Poverty Policy