- Was created in 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty
- Was ostensibly established to address poverty-related issues in poor communities across the United States
- Became incresingly radicalized in the 1960s and ’70s
- Had its funding cut by the Reagan administration in the 1980s
- Became part of AmeriCorps in 1993
Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) was a governmental organization that sought to address such issues as poverty, illiteracy, affordable housing, health care, and unemployment by means of increased government funding for low-income households. President John F. Kennedy first conceived of the program in 1963 as a domestic version of the international Peace Corps. When Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, he incorporated VISTA into his War on Poverty. The nascent organization was administered by the Office of Economic Opportunity.
VISTA’s first group of 20 volunteers began their term of service in January 1965, working with the urban poor in Hartford (Connecticut), the rural poor of Appalachia, and migrant workers in California. Some 2,000 volunteers had joined the program by the end of that year, and the figure stood at 3,600 by late 1966. Though VISTA placed no restrictions on its volunteers in terms of age, education, or income, most of them were young college graduates from middle-class homes. They typically went through a six-to-eight-week training period and then committed to one year of service, for which they received a poverty-level stipend, health insurance, and compensation for their travel expenses.
Many recruits joined VISTA in hopes that doing so would prevent them from getting drafted into the military, though in fact VISTA service did not guarantee anything of the kind; the government approved exemptions from the draft on an individual basis.
In the 1970s the Nixon administration created the federal ACTION agency, which coordinated and administered VISTA as well as the Peace Corps and several other volunteer organizations. As the decade progressed, VISTA became ever-more radicalized. Linda Sunde, who served as a VISTA volunteer in 1975, recalls that the group was heavily supportive of “Alinsky-style organizers”—a reference to Saul Alinsky, the pro-Communist godfather of community organizing.
Bestselling author Stanley Kurtz writes that in the latter 1970s, President Jimmy Carter placed the VISTA program “in the de facto control of die-hard radicals from the sixties.” This happened, in part, because Heather Booth, Tom Hayden, and Jane Fonda used their influence to persuade Carter to appoint their friend Margery Tabankin—an ally of many community-organizing leaders affilited with the Midwest Academy network and ACORN—as director of both VISTA and ACTION. (Carter also appointed Sam Brown, a former anti-Vietnam War activist, as Tabankin’s co-director.) Kurtz notes that after Tabankin was named to these posts in 1977, she “quickly found a way to divert VISTA money from traditional ‘direct service’ volunteering to her community organizer colleagues.” Specifically, “Tabankin arranged a series of meetings in Washington, D.C., with the nation’s top community organizers—many of whom also happened to be her friends. Out of those meetings came a scheme for distributing VISTA grants directly to national networks like ACORN and the Midwest Academy. This new national program made it possible to circumvent state-level grant restrictions and successfully kept the system out of the public eye for a time.”
In 1979 a report published by the House Appropriations Committee uncovered evidence that: (a) VISTA grant money was being widely abused, particularly by ACORN and the Midwest Academy; and (b) on numerous occasions ACTION had failed to follow congressional guidelines for grants, many of which were awarded non-competitively to Tabankin’s personal colleagues.
When President Ronald Reagan appointed Thomas Pauken as the new director of ACTION in February 1981, Pauken quickly opened further investigations into the aforementioned abuse of VISTA programs by the Midwest Academy and related organizations. These probes found that: (a) VISTA was using highly politicized tracts—such as a Heather Booth essay on socialist feminism—to train its personnel; and (b) VISTA was distributing—at taxpayer expense—thousands of copies of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to community organizers all across the United States.
As a result of these findings, Pauken repeatedly asked Congress to abolish VISTA. While Congress refused to go that far, it did cut VISTA’s budget from $34 million in 1981 to $11.8 million in 1983. As a result, the organization’s staff was slashed dramatically, national recruitment came to a halt, and the total number of volunteers fell from 4,100 in 1981 to 930 in 1984. Moreover, VISTA volunteers were barred from engaging in “confrontational” tactics in the mold of Alinsky, and the organization’s director in Washington scrutinized every new project application.
VISTA made a resurgence in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush signed legislation creating the Commission on National and Community Service. That Commission was expanded three years later, when President Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act, which created AmeriCorps. VISTA, in turn, became part of the AmeriCorps program and was renamed AmeriCorps VISTA.