The Great Society was a federal initiative to improve the quality of life for all Americans, especially the poor, during the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. After a period of postwar prosperity, the number of Americans living in poverty had increased to more than 20 percent of the population. This increasing income disparity had been obscured by the Cold War, McCarthyism, and fears of communist infiltration.
President Lyndon Johnson used the idea of the Great Society to enlist support for his civil rights legislation, for Medicare and Medicaid programs, for environmental protection policies, and for the “War on Poverty.” While these are the best-known parts of the Great Society, Johnson envisioned a social agenda greater than the New Deal and made 252 legislative requests in total. The president first used the term in a graduation speech at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964: “We have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.” He envisioned “an end to poverty and racial injustice,” “a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talents,” and “a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community” (Johnson).
The roots of Johnson's Great Society lay in the president's childhood in central Texas, an area marked by flash floods and droughts. His relationship with his father, Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr., a struggling cattle farmer, speculator, and Populist Democrat—a congressman who served five terms in the Texas House of Representatives—also influenced the future president's worldview. The desolate hill-farming, poverty-ridden community surrounding Johnson City became a hotbed of the People's Party and its ideals. Samuel Johnson adhered to these ideals even after Populism disappeared as a political movement. His son credited the influence of his father's Populism throughout his own political career. These principles were reaffirmed when Lyndon Johnson taught mostly poor Mexican children at the Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas, following his graduation from college. After signing the 1965 Higher Education Act, he remembered this event as part of the formation of his populist ideals:
I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American. (“History”)
The Great Society was, in Johnson's mind, an effort to bring “the good life” to all Americans.
Johnson believed that the role of the federal government was to help people overcome their disadvantages. Soon after Kennedy's death, Johnson participated in a series of meetings with economist Walter Heller, a key advisor to the former president and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. Heller suggested a War on Poverty as a means of stimulating the national economy, which Johnson, given his populist leanings, enthusiastically embraced. The War on Poverty was envisioned as a multifaceted attack on the causes of poverty, a “hand up” rather than a “handout.” Politicians and policymakers would not treat the symptoms of poverty but rather its causes, which included housing, health, employment, education, civic participation, and psychological barriers caused by years in a self-perpetuating underclass.
To open the door for his antipoverty initiative, in early 1964, Johnson pushed through a targeted massive tax cut and organized a task force, headed by Sargent Shriver, head of the Peace Corps, to formulate what would become the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA). Signed into law in August, the EOA was the backbone of Johnson's Great Society. It established the Office of Economics Opportunity, which oversaw Legal Services, Head Start, Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), college work-study programs for low-income students, and the Community Action Programs. The EOA also established a host of other programs that were placed under other agencies and departments such as rural loan programs, Adult Basic Education, and the Neighborhood Youth Corps.
Congress also created programs to increase food stamps and unemployment compensation during this time. Johnson's food stamp program would come to be used by nearly 10 percent of the population and 60 percent of those in poverty, and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program assisted this demographic with food in addition to other programs. In 1965, his administration also sought to address the medical needs of the elderly and welfare recipients through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. In 2000, almost 40 million Americans, or roughly a little more than one out of seven Americans, were using the program.
Even though Johnson would have to cut back Great Society programs in the face of the Vietnam conflict, his social agenda transformed the nation. In 1961, only 45 domestic social programs existed; when Johnson left office, 435 programs helped the American people. Spending on social programs increased from $9.9 billion at the beginning of the decade to $25.6 billion by 1968. During his term the poverty rate fell from 22 percent to 13 percent of the population. The Great Society expanded the federal government's role in social welfare, giving economic opportunities to a wide variety of Americans, and increased the standard of living of many stuck in poverty.
While 226 of President Johnson's 252 legislative requests had been passed, the 1966 midterm elections brought more conservatives into Congress. Moreover, growing public frustration over the Vietnam War caused a shift in legislative priorities. Many programs were cut back or reenvisioned to pay for the war. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “One of the greatest casualties of the war in Vietnam is the Great Society . . . shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam” (Bush). Johnson echoed this thought, telling his biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, “I knew from the start if I left a woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to fight that bitch of a war in Vietnam then I would lose everything at home” (Daniels 28). While many of the Great Society's poverty programs continued under future administrations, the Office of Economic Opportunity, which had oversight over the majority of the poverty programs, was dismantled under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Moreover, President Ronald Reagan's first budget in 1981 cut funding for many of these programs.
Trevor Jason Soderstrum
See also: Democratic Party ; Environmentalism ; New Deal ; Poverty Campaigns ; Progressivism ; War on Poverty
Bush, Lawrence. “May 22: The Great Society,” Jewish Currents, May 21, 2012. http://jewishcurrents.org/may-22-the-great-society-10263 . Accessed January 3, 2013.
Daniels, Robert Vincent. Year of the Heroic Guerrilla: World Revolution and Counterrevolution in 1968. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
“History.” College of Education, Texas State University, San Marcos. http://www.education.txstate.edu/about/History-Facts.html . Accessed January 3, 2013.
Johnson, Lyndon Baines. “The Great Society,” speech delivered May 22, 1964, Ann Arbor, MI. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/lbjthegreatsociety.htm . Accessed January 3, 2013.
Stossel, Scott. Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004.