A commonly held misperception regards the social policy solutions implemented by President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as unsuccessful. Johnson’s failure allegedly proved that the liberal vision of a government that takes responsibility for the well being of its people wasn’t realistic. As Peter Johnston put it in his column Wednesday (“In liberal circles, Great Society rhetoric lingers,” 4/2): “The programs failed to live up to the hype despite their high price tag,” and “liberalism lost its cache by association.” He argues that “the state cannot solve all social problems”; government programs are designed to support the poor; handouts “creating dependency” are not effective solutions.
Johnston’s criticisms of the Great Society unfairly attack a set of programs that dramatically improved the lives of a large number of Americans. A fairer assessment of President Johnson’s 1960s reforms is in order.
The precedent for the 1960s programs was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Depression-era project that is often credited with softening the doldrums of the 1930s. Many of Roosevelt’s proposals were oriented towards improving America’s infrastructure, including the introduction of public housing and funds to improve roads and electricity grids. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (referred to as “welfare”) and Social Security made direct assistance to individuals a top national government responsibility for the first time.
By the 1960s, however, the impoverished in American society found themselves poorly served by their government and the capitalist system. Their housing was dilapidated, unemployment was rising, healthcare was too expensive and the public education system was in dire straights. Something had to be done by the government, because the private sector had proven that it simply wasn’t up to the task.
Lyndon Johnson wanted to complete the New Deal project by waging a “War on Poverty.” Once Democrats won a massive congressional majority in the 1964 elections, Johnson was able to get his proposals approved. In the next four years, Head Start, Food Stamps, Medicare, Medicaid and Model Cities, as well as a number of jobs programs, were all introduced.
Johnson’s redistributive project, however, only lasted until 1969; when Richard Nixon took office, he began dismantling the Great Society, arguing that a caretaker government was unneeded in the United States, where the private sector could solve any problem efficiently. By 1972, the Republican president had initiated New Federalism, a governance method that significantly reduced Washington’s role in social programs.
Whereas the top 0.1 percent of earners made around 1 percent of total national income in 1969, they make around 7 percent today (70 times their share). The top 10 percent of earners rose from around 30 percent to more than 40 percent of the national income. The government’s lack of interest in spreading the wealth has allowed for vast increases in income inequality. The abandonment of the social democratic principles inherent in President Johnson’s project has allowed for the wealthiest to increase their incomes while providing very little to the poor.
The notion that liberal policies were given a chance and subsequently failed is a myth fueled by conservatives bent on restraining government. Not only was the Great Society fully funded for only a short period of time, but many of the programs worked as they were intended, which is why millions of Americans still rely on them today.
Between 1960, when Johnson became vice president, and 1969, when he left the Oval Office, the poverty rate among individuals fell from 22.2 percent to 12.1 percent, according to the Census. Among blacks, the rate plunged from 55.5 percent to 32.2 percent. The Great Society guaranteed health care for the elderly and the most impoverished Americans, people who had never been able to afford basic medical care in the past. Head Start dramatically improved the academic performance of poorer students in school.
The government also funded the production of a far higher number of public housing units than ever before, providing homes for those who were not able to afford them otherwise. Mass transit systems were constructed in Washington, San Francisco and Atlanta after a decade of Dwight Eisenhower’s highways-only policy.
It is difficult, faced with evidence of these accomplishments, to pass off the Great Society as an example of failed liberal policy making. In fact, it showed that our government actually could provide for the people’s good; Johnson’s successful project remains an unparalleled attempt to address the needs of the poor. In the face of today’s rising unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and miserable housing situation, we could do well to follow the example of the Great Society.
Yonah Freemark is a senior in Saybrook College.