With all the talk currently being bruited about the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, I am reminded that for a year, between 1964 and 1965, I was the director of the antipoverty program of Pulaski County, Ark., which included Little Rock, the adjoining city of North Little Rock and the surrounding rural area. I was then 27 years old, appropriately left-wing, and confident that society could be greatly improved with the help of large infusions of money and the serious thinking of people like myself.
My only qualification for directing a local antipoverty program was that a few months before I had been approached for the job I had published an article in Harper's magazine about urban renewal. The article was roughly 6,000 words, and my total knowledge of the subject was perhaps 8,000 words. Based on that article, I was, for four or five months, one of the leading housing experts in America.
Nobody at the time was much of an expert on poverty. The main book on the subject was Michael Harrington's "The Other America: Poverty in the United States" (1962). Harrington's book was less a study than an exhortation; its argument was that in a society so affluent as ours, poverty was an egregious sin.
The population of Pulaski County was roughly a quarter of a million. I had on my staff a secretary and three assistants who had the title of "field workers." Two field workers were young black men, the third was an older (than I or they) and remarkable woman named Ruth Arnold, whose model of a good society was an integrated one, which was—and remains—mine.
The way money in the antipoverty program worked was that the local community put up 10% of the sum they asked of the federal government; the 10% could also be "in kind." This meant that one could charge off office space, desks and chairs and stationery and anything else to count toward the 10%. My salary as director was $10,000.
One of the first things I did was attempt to work out a map illustrating Pulaski County's "pockets of poverty." Little Rock and North Little Rock had blocks and blocks of shotgun houses—a straight shot from the front door to the back—still without indoor plumbing. I remember remarking to a female black schoolteacher, with the heavy irony available to the ignorant, that shabby as these houses were, almost all of them had television sets. "Please don't knock those television sets," she said. "They give these children the only chance they will ever have to hear decent English."
Some of the programs Washington wanted us to administer were fairly exotic. A number of others were merely silly. I remember one called "Foster Grandparents," in which the elderly would be paid to baby-sit the children of officially poor mothers who could then go off to work. Rubbing up against human nature, the program failed to recognize that the elderly do not necessarily long for the company of the very young, or vice versa.
Many of the shotgun houses I visited were inhabited by black single mothers with multiple kids. I attempted to explain all the good things the antipoverty program would do for them and their families. I also gave talks about poverty to middle-class women's groups, informing them that there were children in Harlem who had never seen an orange. The women's eyes teared up. I spoke in black churches, quoting arid statistics on poverty to which men in the audience would chant, "Tell it, brother."
Around this time the civil-rights movement was well under way. I used to hang out with members of SNCC, the acronym for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. I taught the SNCC people how they might apply for federal funds to get out the black vote.
I had genuine regard for those SNCC members who were not merely doing left-wing tourism but were in the movement full-time. Many had participated in protest marches in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and paid for it by having local police billy clubs smashed over their heads and being attacked by German shepherds.
I spent some time with one of the leaders of the Little Rock SNCC organization, a man named Bill Hansen, who had put in time in some of the worst jails in the South. We once had lunch together in a dingy restaurant in the black district. I picked up the check. Hansen put three quarters on the table for a tip. "You know, Bill," I said, " Trotsky never tipped." He picked up the quarters.
As antipoverty program director, I decided to set up fundamental programs: Head Start, the preschool program for poor kids; legal aid; and birth-control counseling. I left Little Rock and the antipoverty program before they were put into effect.
Not long before I decided to return home to Chicago, I received a phone call from a young woman at SNCC inviting me to join a mass protest at the Arkansas capitol building. I told her that if I were to do so my usefulness as a government representative would be at an end. "You're either with us or against us. You decide," she said, and hung up.
For a while after I left Little Rock for Chicago I kept in touch by phone with Ruth Arnold, who told me that things were fizzling out with the local antipoverty program. Middle-class children were now increasingly going to preschool, which effectively wiped out any true head-start that poor children might have obtained. The poor used legal aid, not to sue the city and the school board, as political-minded antipoverty workers had hoped, but mainly to sue one another: for divorce, debt collection, paternity. As for birth-control counseling, who knew or could know for years to come what its effects would be.
I've not been back to Little Rock for decades, but my guess is that little has changed for the poor since my days as director of the antipoverty program there. The poverty in Pulaski County, make no mistake, was and is real. Only the ways of dealing with it remain in the realm of fantasy.
Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of "Essays in Biography" (Axios Press, 2012).