Considering the kind of issues facing the United States today, it may be the perfect time to look back at a program launched in the 1960s which aimed to completely eradicate poverty and racial injustice. Sounds lofty, a little hippie-ish perhaps – but this was a plan that came from the very top – U.S President Lyndon B Johnson, and was known as the Great Society.
This was a set of programs that surpassed even the New Deal in terms of scope and remains one of the largest social reforms in modern history. It included everything from the ‘war on poverty’ to education, from tax reforms to healthcare. It was a dazzling array of initiatives that began with a speech by President Johnson in 1964.
The changes that were enacted between 1964 and 1968 were not short of extraordinary, but considering that the U.S still suffers from stark inequality, poverty and racial injustice, did the Great Society really improve anything? And when you look at the torrent of criticism that many aspects of the plan still face today, was it all worth it?
Just two hours and eight minutes after John F Kennedy became the 4th U.S President to be assassinated on 22nd November 1963, Lyndon B Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One.
America was left in a state of shock and anger but Johnson was able to ride a wave of empathy to bring about several ideas first put forward by JFK but which had become gridlock in congress or the senate. By this point, Johnson had also developed a reputation as a man who got things done and his experience as a teacher in Texas had shown him the true extent of poverty still seen around the United States.
The Great Society Emerges
The first public mention of the Great Society came as President Johnson addressed an audience at Ohio University on 7th May 1964. He told them,
“with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled”
This was expanded two weeks later during a speech on 22nd May at the University of Michigan in which he added,
“I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of conferences and meetings—on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. From these studies, we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society”
And things gathered pace from there. 14 separate task forces were assembled to study various aspects of U.S society, with their findings circulated throughout the agencies. The recommendations, and indeed much of the task force work itself, was not released to the public. President Johnson was eager to not let information escape before it could be properly reviewed, lest it drowned in public criticism. There was, after all, an election looming.
1964 U.S Elections
Johnson swept to victory in the 1964 U.S election, taking 61% of the vote, and all but six states. At his State of the Union speech on 4th January 1965, he unveiled much of what would go into the Great Society.
To make this easier for the Democrats, the Republicans had received a real hiding in both the Senate and the Congress, meaning that all three sections of the legislative branch were now under democrat control – and comfortably at that.
Front and centre of the entire Great Society plan was the question of civil rights and this had been one of the few aspects of the plan that had been mentioned during the election.
The movement was of course barrelling forward by this point, with Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ coming a year earlier in 1963. These were heady days, and a total of four civil rights acts were passed during the Great Society period.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination and segregation for the first time across the nation. A year later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of voter qualification tests which had traditionally kept African-Americans off voting lists. It also outlawed the use of discriminatory poll taxes and allowed the appointment of federal voting examiners to scrutinise certain areas who didn’t comply with these laws – and I think we can probably imagine where we are talking about there.
The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 discarded the national-origin quotas used for immigration law (something that had severely limited immigration since the ’20s). Lastly was the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which banned housing discrimination while also finally applying constitutional protections to Native Americans on their own reservations.
The War on Poverty
By far the most ambitious aspect of the Great Society was the war on poverty, which would also prove to be one of the most controversial. In 1964, the U.S government had introduced the Office of Economic Opportunity and passed the Economic Opportunity Act – to eliminate hunger, illiteracy, and unemployment from American life.
In 1963, close to 20% of Americans lived under the official poverty line and the gap between the rich and the poor was quickly expanding. It was decided that instead of just simply raising salaries or cutting taxes, the best way to achieve these lofty goals was to combine tax reform with better education and development possibilities for the poor.
These were particularly focused on slum areas in major cities, but also in rural locations such as the Appalachia area in the Eastern U.S – an area that even today faces some of the highest poverty levels in the country.
In 1964, $1 billion (around $8.3 billion today) was used to initiate these programs, with a further $2 billion ($16.6 billion) coming in the following two years, and there were plenty of programs getting started.
One of the biggest that fell under the war on poverty umbrella was Job Corps which provided jobs and vocational training for 100,000 underprivileged young men and women. At that point, unemployment rates among youths were twice as high as older generations and the growing number restless and out of work was seen as one of the biggest obstacles to creating a better society. Job Corps is a program that continues to this day and has helped over 2 million men and women around the country.
AmeriCorps VISTA is another program that is still on-going which began with the Great Society. It is a domestic version of the Peace Corps which sees Americans volunteer all over the world. AmeriCorps VISTA linked together those who wished to volunteer and those who really needed it. This included house building, farming, helping veterans, teaching and much more.
Bit of bad news on this front though. While AmeriCorps VISTA is still going strong, the Trump administration’s budget for 2020 set out guidelines to scrap not only AmeriCorps but many programs it is associated with.
The Food Stamp Act of 1964 was another major change and was seen as an expansion of an idea that emerged with JFK in 1961. This program was designed to go directly where the poor needed it the most. Food stamps could be acquired at welfare offices then redeemed at the grocery store, but it was a lot more than just that. It also created a key link between the federal government and the states and allowed for surplus food production to reach the areas that it was needed in.
Before we leave the War on Poverty – and perhaps to balance out that democratic slant this program certainly had – while it was Johnson who brought in the Food Stamp Act, it was none other than everybody’s favourite Presidential villain, Richard Nixon who was responsible for its huge increase, in fact, the food stamp program increased five-fold during his presidency.
Education was another area that saw considerable changes during the Great Society. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 saw $1 billion ($8.3 billion today) used to help schools with higher concentrations of low-income children to purchase materials and start special education programs.
A further $1.1 billion ($9.2 billion today) was used to provide grants to states to implement a wide range of changes including expanding educational research, creating community facilities in at-risk areas as well as purchasing educational materials.
Project Head Start was another flagship program which got underway, which aimed to give support to low-income families with early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services. Originally designed as a catch-up summer school program it would be heavily expanded in the early 1980s.
We also saw the Higher Education Act of 1965, which raised federal funding given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students and the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which as you might guess provided more funding for those areas of the U.S where the English ability was lower.
Both Medicare and Medicaid appeared during the Great Society. The Social Security Act of 1965 provided Medicare and funding for older Americans to pay for medical costs. Medicaid, on the other hand, provided medical care for those requiring welfare assistance and became a reality on 30th June 1965. Each state was responsible for its own Medicaid program, but the whole thing was overseen by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) which monitored the quality of service and how the funds were being used.
A national health service, similar to what is in the UK remains a long way off for the United States, but this was about as close as it’s come. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this was, and indeed still is a hugely divisive issue.
You might be listening to all of this wondering just what went wrong. It all sounds quite reasonable – I mean, nobody likes to see poor disadvantaged children, right? In 1966 during the midterm elections, the Republican party made major gains on the back of its opposition to certain aspects of the Great Society. Medicaid and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act were proving hugely popular with the public, so the Republicans left that well alone, and it was the War on Poverty that they really sunk their teeth into.
Now, before you start picturing angry Republicans pulling the food out of the mouths of starving children, it was nothing like that. Instead of proposing to scrap them altogether, the party usually offered an alternative that sounded just OK enough to satisfy some.
The major issue was that, while the Great Society was popular, broadly speaking, it did leave many feeling marginalised and this often came along racial lines. The Great Society made very little disparity between white and black, but it was felt by a sizable portion of the urban white ethnic population that it leaned heavily towards racial minorities.
To make matters worse, there was the war in Vietnam which was still dragging painfully on, and large-scale civil unrest which reached its peak in 1968. President Johnson’s administration was facing a barrage of criticism from both the left and the right, it was a time when it seemed they could do little right in the eyes of many.
Fearing he would not win, President Johnson announced his intention not to run in the 1968 election, which led to Richard Nixon taking his place. Over the next decade elements of the Great Society were tinkered with, but much remained the same.
It wasn’t until 1981, with the election of Ronald Reagan, that Johnson’s sweeping reforms faced their sternest test. The new, widely popular President even likened the Great Society to the great abuses of power by King George III back in the days of the American revolution.
Did it work?
Even to this day the contents of the Great Society reforms are still furiously debated, and it almost always comes down to ideology. Republicans believe that a top-down approach involving tax breaks for companies is their best way to raise others from poverty, while Democrats believe it should go the other way, from the bottom up.
Firstly, let’s look at some hard facts. The numbers of those below the official poverty rate fell from 19.5% in 1963 to 12.3% in 2017 – which isn’t exactly mind-blowing, but when you consider that from the 1980’s many of the Great Society programs came under attack from the Republican party it’s a little difficult to use those numbers. If anything it simply reveals the shocking fact that over 10% of the richest nation in the world lives under the poverty line.
The numbers of African Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 55% in 1960 to 27% in 1968, which is quite a decrease in just 8 years. In 1964 the federal government spent around $4 billion on education but by 1967 the yearly expenditure had risen to $12 billion, while spending on health tripled in the same period. On average, the U.S government was spending four times more on a poor family of four than that it had been doing in 1961.
So they were undoubtedly spending more money on the poor but were lives really improving? This is a question that has rumbled on to this day.
If anything, things have got worse and today the number of people living in poverty in the United States stands around 40 million. If the Great Society was meant to eliminate poverty, it most certainly hasn’t worked. But that being said, even to this day, it provides vital support across the land. Roughly 40% of the U.S relies on it for some kind of healthcare. 30 million children rely on it for school meals and 20 million families still use its program for nutritional assistance.
What you think about the Great Society will most likely come down to how you vote in the United States. Democrats see them as the bedrock of modern American way of life, while Republicans see them as giant wastes of money which intrude on traditional values. No doubt the comments section is going to be fun in this video
This was a set of reforms that weren’t perfect but certainly helped a sizable portion of the U.S population in the mid-1960s. The funny thing is that they weren’t even particularly radical in terms of left-wing thinking nowadays. There were no government handouts, no talk of a universal basic income – its focus instead was on providing the same kinds of tools to every American in the country, whether you were white or black, rich or poor. Whether you lived in the Bronx or Appalachia, Miami Beach or Montana.
At the very least it provided a helping hand, rather than a handout, which it quickly became characterised as, but it also revealed deep divisions within the country, many of which are still plainly visible today.
If the question is, did the Great Society work? Then no it didn’t, because there is still poverty and racial injustice in the United States, but to say that it didn’t help a huge number of people during the 1960s would be absurd.
2020 has forced us all to take a good hard look at the societies we’ve built. When everything falls apart, what is left as a safety net for the billions around the world who live considerably closer to the bottom than to the top. The Great Society has always been a contentious political debate, but surely the question should be how to eliminate poverty, not if you should. In the aftermath of Covid-19, the United States will need to take stock of what it has created and the kind of society it wants to be in the future.