How Great Was the Great Society?

LBJ and Civil Rights Leaders
Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer meeting in 1964

Today, one would be hard-pressed to find any political leader proclaiming that government could deliver a “Great Society.” But that’s just what President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in his State of the Union address to Congress on January 4, 1965. During that address, he urged Congress to pass legislation which later became a mélange of programs, including Medicaid, Medicare, Food Stamps, and Head Start, among others intended to win what Johnson called a War on Poverty.

Fresh off a true landslide victory, both in the Electoral College and the popular vote, Johnson was an unrepentant New Dealer who remembered how Franklin Roosevelt’s aggressive government programs brought development to the rural Texas county where he was raised. Johnson called upon the wealthiest nation in the world to do something for those left behind amidst growing wealth, declaring: “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice.”

Some remnants of Johnson’s idealistic “Great Society” survive today.

Some see the Great Society as a success, moving the nation towards a more just and equitable society. Scholars largely agree that the Great Society made an impact. Johnson’s programs increased Social Security benefits, greatly aiding the elderly poor; instituted Medicare and Medicaid, health care supports that even conservative politicians today pledge to support; and assisted African Americans in the 1960s, whose income rose by half in the decade. The percentage of families living in poverty also declined.

Still, the programs could never live up to their grand expectations, and its failures were evident as Americans became less supportive of government programs intended to solve great social issues. Ronald Reagan once famously declared that the federal government had declared war on poverty and that poverty won. Many politicians today echo that theme. Programs the Great Society directed to the poor remain controversial, with some arguing that they contributed to the decline of family life among those in poverty.

Many scholars, however, interpret the data differently. One report indicates that the belief that the Great Society programs increased poverty is based upon flawed studies. Programs such as food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, and increases and widening of Social Security, propelled a 26 percent decrease in poverty rates today compared to 1960, before the Great Society was launched. And programs that gave a boost to struggling middle-class people, such as Medicare, remain highly popular, with few politicians willing to take them on directly despite their high costs. Some remnants of the idealistic “Great Society” survive.

JSTOR Citations

The Great Society Did Succeed

By: Sar A. Levitan and Robert Taggart

Political Science Quarterly , Vol 91 No. 4 Winter 1976-77

The Academy of Political Science

Winning the War on Poverty from the Great Society to the Great Recession

By: Bruce D. Meyer, James X. Sullivan, Hilary W. Hoynes, Erik Hurst

Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, (FALL 2012), pp. 133-200

Brookings Institution Press

Peter Feuerherd

Peter Feuerherd is a professor of journalism at St. John's University in New York and a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

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