What Everyone Gets Wrong About LBJ’s Great Society
This article has been adapted from Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House, which will be released on January 30.
Since at least the early 1980s, Republicans have been committed to dismantling Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—a collection of programs the 36th president vowed would lead to “an end to poverty and racial injustice.”
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Twenty-one years later, in a scorching address delivered in 1983, President Ronald Reagan denounced the Great Society as a bundle of expensive and failed initiatives that contributed to, rather than alleviated, suffering. Johnson’s legacy reinforced the what Reagan called the “central political error of our time”: the flawed notion that “government and bureaucracy” were the “primary vehicle for social change.”
A Democratic Congress blocked Reagan in his attempts to unravel Johnson’s work, but no such obstacle encumbers President Donald Trump. Congressional Republicans control both chambers and are far more conservative in their views than they were in Reagan’s time. Many signature items of Johnson’s legacy—from civil and voting rights to environmental protections and aid to public schools—are today under assault. Indeed, there is no more a dogged advocate of overhauling the Great Society’s antipoverty programs than House Speaker Paul Ryan, who claims that their “top-down approach” “created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.”
Yet for all Johnson’s grandiose rhetoric, the Great Society was more centrist—and is more critical to the nation’s social and economic fabric—than has been commonly understood. The presidential aides who conceived and implemented its component parts rejected policies that would enforce equality of income, wealth or condition. They did not broadly support quantitative measures like cash transfers or a guaranteed minimum income but, rather, believed that qualitative measures like education, workforce training, access to health care, food security and full political empowerment would ensure each American a level playing field and equal opportunity to share in the nation’s prosperity.
Governing in an age of unmatched prosperity, the architects of the Great Society were convinced that the means to a more just society was not cutting the pie into smaller slices so that everyone would enjoy an equal share, but baking a larger pie. The idea that the economy might someday stop growing, or that inequality would increase, rarely factored seriously into liberal thinking.
Fifty years later, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether Johnson’s vision is adequate in a country in which fewer workers enjoy employer pensions and health care, 31 percent of children live in single-parent families (up from 12 percent in 1960), household wages have long been stagnant, and inequality has reverted to levels we have not seen since the eve of the Great Depression. But it’s a myth to say the Great Society failed, just as it’s a myth to portray it as a radical left-wing, big-government project. And understanding those myths is the key to figuring out what to do now.
From the moment his presidency began, Johnson was committed to completing the unfinished legacy of the New Deal and Fair Deal, including measures to alleviate the sting of poverty. On the evening of November 22, 1963, from his bedroom at the Elms—the Johnson family’s stately home in Northwest Washington, D.C.—he told aides Bill Moyers and Jack Valenti, “You know, when I went into that office tonight and they came in and started briefing me on what I have to do, do you realize that every issue that is on my desk tonight was on my desk when I came to Congress in 1937?” Civil rights. Health insurance for the elderly and the poor. Federal aid to primary and secondary education. Support for higher education. Antipoverty and nutritional programs.
The question wasn’t whether to fight poverty, but how.
Johnson’s first major attempt to frame an answer, his first State of the Union address to Congress in 1964, is the one we tend to remember. It was here that the new president famously declared “unconditional war on poverty” to a country still reeling from John F. Kennedy’s assassination months earlier. “It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won,” he said. “The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
Months later, when Johnson used the phrase “Great Society” for the first time, in speech at Ohio University on May 7, he described “a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” The vision may have been expansive, but the conservative caricature of Johnson’s legacy as radical and redistributive is historically illiterate. Often invoked interchangeably with the “War on Poverty,” the Great Society included antipoverty programs, but its ambition was broader: Johnson wanted nothing less than to maximize every citizen’s ability to realize his or her fullest potential. As he put it in a more expansive speech weeks later at the University of Michigan, “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all.” In that sense, its aims were fundamentally in keeping with a philosophy many on the right would find familiar today.
Meeting in late 1963 and early 1964, the architects of LBJ’s Great Society considered and rejected calls for a reverse income tax and other forms of wealth redistribution that would, in the words of an ad hoc committee of left-wing intellectuals that advocated a more aggressive program, furnish “every family with an adequate income as a matter of right.” Though some figures in the Johnson administration supported such policies—notably, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, assistant secretary at the Department of Labor, and later, Sargent Shriver, John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law whom Johnson tapped to run his Office of Economic Opportunity—the White House never seriously considered so radical an approach.
Such thinking might have resonated during the bleakest days of the Great Depression, when most liberal intellectuals and elected officials agreed in some form or another that capitalism was foundationally broken. Alvin Hansen, a prominent economist who taught at Harvard University, warned in his presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1938 of a future marked by “sick recoveries which die in their infancy and depressions which feed on themselves and leave a hard and seemingly immovable core of unemployment.” Against so gloomy a backdrop, many reformers assumed that government could mitigate the human toll of permanent economic contraction only by making broad and even radical changes to capitalism’s underlying structure—changes as wide-ranging and sometimes inconsistent as public ownership of utilities and factories, a guaranteed family income, a breakup of monopolies and trusts or, conversely, industrial cartels invested with sweeping power to set uniform wages and prices.
But the experience of World War II, in which the United States emerged as the world’s leading economic power and “arsenal of democracy,” forced a swift reappraisal. America raised, supplied and deployed a military force of 16 million men, defeated fascism in Europe and the Pacific, and led the establishment of postwar economic order around the globe. In so doing, the government lifted the country out of the Depression and proved that through skilled planning and economic management policy makers could provide, as the labor leader Walter Reuther described it, “full production, full employment and full distribution in a society which has achieved economic democracy within the framework of political democracy.”
Many postwar liberals came to believe as an article of faith that, through careful application of Keynesian economics, expert bodies like the Council of Economic Advisers—created in 1946—could calibrate government spending to ensure sustained growth.
Liberals needed little convincing. Signs of prosperity were in rich abundance everywhere. In the two decades following World War II, bulldozers and cement mixers swiftly transformed vast reaches of American farms and forests into streets and cul-de-sacs, each lined by rows of brand-new white Cape Cod homes. It was an era when increasing numbers of middle-class and working-class employees enjoyed previously unimaginable benefits, like annual cost-of-living adjustments to their wages and salaries, employer-based health insurance, paid vacations and private pensions. Capitalism, which in recent memory seemed to have run its full course, was now functioning with great efficiency. This point, in turn, led many Democrats to rethink some of their long-standing ideas about policy and politics.
As the veteran columnist Walter Lippmann, whose 1937 book The Good Society partly inspired the framing and naming of Johnson’s domestic agenda, argued in 1964, “A generation ago it would have been taken for granted that a war on poverty meant taking money away from the haves and turning it over to the have nots. … But in this generation a revolutionary idea has taken hold. The size of the pie can be increased by intention, by organized fiscal policy and then a whole society, not just one part of it, will grow richer.”
Yet liberals in the early 1960s were acutely aware that poverty remained a trenchant feature of American society. In 1962 the socialist activist and writer Michael Harrington published an arresting volume on American poverty. Titled The Other America, it argued that upwards of 50 million people—over a quarter of the population—lived in a “system designed to be impervious to hope.” The “other America” was “populated by the failures, by those driven from the land and bewildered by the city, by old people suddenly confronted with the torments of loneliness and poverty, and by minorities facing a wall of prejudice.” Largely “invisible” to members of the prosperous middle class, other Americans were trapped in a national “ghetto, a modern poor farm for the rejects of society and of the economy.” It shocked the liberal conscience to learn that, even by the government’s tight definition, 34 million Americans—more than one out of six—lived beneath the poverty line and that three-quarters of these individuals were children and senior citizens.
The scale of the problem was so huge that the federal government had to lead—but Johnson’s advisers rejected many of the left-wing solutions in vogue at the time. Walter Heller, one of LBJ’s top economic aides, voiced the consensus opinion that creating a minimum family income was neither politically expedient nor wise. It would be costly—as much as $11 billion annually (over $90 billion in today’s money)—and would “leave the roots of poverty untouched and deal only with its symptoms,” he believed. They also considered but rejected calls for a massive federal jobs program for the unemployed and underemployed. Instead, the war on poverty focused on unlocking opportunity by making education and workforce training more widely accessible to poor people, ensuring that poor people and the elderly had access to medical care, and bolstering supplementary programs to ensure that poor families and children enjoyed greater food security.
Such was the thinking behind one of the administration’s most popular programs, Head Start, which in its first years provided early education, medical and dental care and meals to poor children. Many economically disadvantaged kids “arrive at the first grade beaten or at least handicapped before they start,” observed Sargent Shriver. “To use an analogy from sports, they stand 10, 20, and 30 feet back from the starting line; other people are way ahead of them.” By extending early childhood education to at-risk children, the government could level the playing field.
“You tell Shriver no doles,” Johnson once instructed Bill Moyers. It all came back to the common understanding that if government managed economic growth and unlocked opportunity, poverty would recede. “I think it is a liberal view, rather than a conservative view, that there are too many Americans forced to live on our welfare rolls,” Horace Busby, Johnson’s cabinet secretary, told the president. The administration was addressing the roots, not just the symptoms, of poverty. “We have an obligation in our society … to support a principle of public policy which will permit every citizen not only to live at a certain minimum standard but to be able to live at a rising standard by his own effort and his own training and ability.”
Yet Johnson and his aides were also acutely aware that racial discrimination made a mockery of liberal opportunity theory, with its faith in empowering citizens to rise as far as their talents would take them. All the education and training in the world wouldn’t help a citizen who was artificially barred from participating fully in housing and labor markets.
Desegregation was not a solitary building block of the Great Society; it was a central theme that ran throughout most of its key initiatives, from health care and education to voting rights and urban renewal. And both the president and his aides knowingly spent down most of their political capital in its pursuit. As Johnson remarked early in his tenure, when advised not to waste good will on so hopeless a cause as civil rights, “What the hell’s the presidency for?”
In most books and movies about Johnson’s presidency, the story ends with congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965. In reality, it’s what happened after LBJ signed the bills into law that is most remarkable.
Weeks after passage of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Johnson’s aides began wielding a carrot-and-stick method to compel Southern school districts to desegregate. The administration’s education bill increased federal funding for public schools from just $2.7 billion in 1964 to $14.7 billion in 1971. Federal funding now amounted to upwards of 30 percent of some southern districts’ prospective budgets. However, if local officials insisted on maintaining segregated school systems, not only might they face Justice Department suits and, potentially, court orders, but under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the administration could also summarily withhold a large portion of their eligible federal education funding. And that’s exactly what the administration threatened to do.
Much of the onus fell on Francis Keppel, the commissioner of education who served by his own admission as the administration’s “chief SOB with the Southerners.” After Johnson signed the education bill in April 1965, with only five months until the start of the new school year, his office was responsible for coaxing, cajoling and haggling with more than 5,000 individual districts throughout the South. “I had a whole crew of fellows trying to talk these Southern school districts into changing,” he remembered. “They’d put up a plan—we wouldn’t like it, and we’d [send] it back. I used to have to go over with [White House domestic policy chief] Joe Califano about every three days, just as if you were reporting on your hunting trip, saying, ‘We’ve now got 3,200 of them,’ and, ‘We’ve now got 3,800 of them.’ We finally got down to a hundred of them or something.” During his regular meetings at the White House—sometimes held in the Fish Room (later renamed the Roosevelt Room) just off of the Oval Office, sometimes in Califano’s basement-level office suite—the president would routinely “wander in and out saying, ‘Get ’em! Get ’em! Get the last ones!’ We were going absolutely nuts. But it was a kind of political game. He wanted them all in the bag, you know, by September.”
The results were astonishing. Between 1965 and 1968, the number of black students in the South who attended majority-white schools rose from roughly 2.3 percent to almost 23.4 percent. That ratio would continue to climb over the following two decades until it peaked at 43.5 percent in 1988. More arresting still, between 1968 and 1980 the portion of southern black children attending deeply segregated schools—schools where they made up over 90 percent of the student population—fell from 77.5 percent to 26.5 percent. In those same years, the portion of white southern students attending deeply segregated public schools dropped from 68.8 percent to 26 percent.
It didn’t stop with schools. Immediately after Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law in 1965, the White House dispatched more than a thousand inspectors to visit hospitals directly and ensure they were complying with Title VI. Close to 7,000 facilities swiftly acquiesced; another 5,500 fell into line after inspection. Unsurprisingly, most of the noncompliant facilities were in four Deep South states: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina. As with schools, White House aides tracked the most granular details—district-by-district, county-by-county—on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.
The guidelines were sweeping. To be eligible for Medicare reimbursements, a hospital or nursing home had to admit all people for inpatient and outpatient services without regard to color, race or national origin. Where there was a “significant variation between the racial composition of patients and the population served,” the hospital had an affirmative obligation to justify that variance to federal officials. Each facility’s “rooms, wards, floors, sections, and buildings” must be integrated; officials were not to ask patients whether they wished to share quarters with someone of a particular race. “Employees, medical staff and volunteers of the hospital are to be assigned to patient service” on a color-blind basis. Training programs were to be fully integrated. The guidelines required that hospital employees apply “courtesy titles” like “Dr.,” “Mrs.” and “Mr.” without regard to race and that formerly segregated institutions conduct proactive outreach to nonwhite physicians, nurses and civil rights organizations—and take out advertisements in local media outlets—announcing the change in policy. The Johnson administration was not merely forcing hospitals to extend access to black citizens. It was enforcing a mandatory shift in how medical professionals treated African Americans as patients and human beings and placing new quantitative and qualitative obligations on local institutions.
The administration also took an aggressive and hard line in enforcing other provisions of the civil rights laws. Not an hour after he signed the Voting Rights Act, LBJ instructed Califano to ensure that the attorney general “immediately mounted an all-fronts attack on poll taxes and literacy tests.” Four days later—the ink barely dry—federal examiners descended on 12 counties in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia. By the following January, they added more than 90,000 voters to the rolls in those jurisdictions alone. Violence and intimidation persisted, but for the most part southern authorities acquiesced in the wake of congressional action and in the face of strong executive enforcement.
As late as 1965, only 6.7 percent of African Americans in Mississippi and 19 percent in Alabama had surmounted the complex web of legal and extralegal measures in place to prevent them from exercising the franchise. By 1970, roughly two-thirds of African Americans in these Deep South states were registered to vote, and most were able to exercise this right without interference.
The administration didn’t always win its battles. “We’ve got to end this goddamn discrimination against Negroes” in the housing market, the president barked at Califano as the two men took a late afternoon swim at the LBJ Ranch during the summer of 1965. LBJ, who was tall enough to stand in the deep end, jabbed repeatedly at the shoulders of his young aide, who was paddling furiously in an effort to stay afloat. “Until people,” LBJ said, “whether they’re purple, brown, black, yellow, red, green, or whatever live together, they’ll never know they have the same hopes for their children, the same fears, troubles, woes, ambitions. I want a bill that makes it possible for anybody to buy a house anywhere they can afford to. Now, can you do that? Can you do all these things?”
The following year, the administration asked Congress to approve a provision that would bar racial discrimination in housing sales and rentals. The bill provoked a massive backlash among white voters, particularly in Northern communities that typically supported Democrats. White House officials who had been so pleasantly surprised at the relative ease with which Southern states accepted the desegregation of hospitals and movie theaters did not anticipate how inviolate many white ethnic residents of Northern cities and suburbs regarded their neighborhood boundaries.
That summer, a correspondent for Time told presidential aide Harry McPherson that the “backlash” issue had overtaken Vietnam as the top consideration for white voters in Indiana and Ohio. The bill died in Congress.
Few presidents have left in place so sweeping a list of positive domestic accomplishments. Fifty years after the fact, it is all but impossible to imagine the United States without Medicare, voting rights, integrated hotels and restaurants, federal aid to primary and secondary schools, or federally guaranteed college loans—all measures that continue to enjoy wide support, despite Republican efforts to dismantle them.
The Great Society also took a sizable bite out of poverty. The government normally measures poverty on the basis of pretax cash income, but when economists factor in noncash assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies (all products of the Great Society) and tax adjustments like the earned income tax credit (a product of the Nixon administration), the poverty rate fell by 26 percent between 1960 and 2010, with two-thirds of the decline occurring before 1980.
Still, predicated as it was on qualitative measures conceived to unlock individual opportunity, since the 1970s the Great Society has drawn sharp criticism for what it did not do. It did not succeed in its ambition to eliminate poverty. It did not effect wide-scale cash transfers or establish a minimum family income. It did not extend quality medical care and educational opportunity to all Americans. It did not save urban America from blight or depressed rural areas from further decline. In effect, it disappointed liberal aspirations and only confirmed the worst of conservative fears that government programs could not solve broader social and economic problems.
George Reedy, who served as Johnson’s White House press secretary and special assistant, later surmised that the sweeping promises associated with the Great Society “may have had a negative impact on the willingness of Americans to trust such efforts.” When those measures did not meet the great expectations that liberals established in the heady days of 1964, many Americans came to agree with LBJ’s conservative critics that government itself was the cancer, not the cure.
But one of the reasons that the Great Society came up short of its sweeping goals is that the guiding philosophy behind its original formation made assumptions about the American economy that would prove unsustainable in future years. LBJ’s domestic programs were born of prevailing liberal conviction in the early postwar period that experts could grow the economy in perpetuity while sustaining low unemployment and inflation. By that assumption, if government equipped people with the tools to help themselves and provided an even playing field, opportunity would be widely shared.
After 1973, this belief no longer seemed tenable. Owing in part to spending on the Vietnam War, as well as a series of supply shocks in the food and energy sectors, Americans faced more than a decade of runaway inflation. Inflation was accompanied, in turn, by rising unemployment, particularly in the manufacturing sector, which for many years had formed the backbone of America’s prosperous, postwar middle class. Stagflation—the combination of high unemployment and inflation—was the very repudiation of liberal economic theory, and it undercut the entire premise of opportunity theory.
Experts lost control of the economic levers, and increasingly it has become clear that all the education and training in the world will not help poor people in urban ghettos, declining coal towns in Appalachia or midsized cities in the Midwest. Poor people need jobs and income, not qualitative assistance to help them capture prosperity that no longer exists.
Stagnant wages since the early 1970s, a sharp rise in single-parent households, and receding benefits like employer-based health care and pensions have also upended many of the assumptions that guided the Johnson administration. So has an alarming increase in wealth and income inequality.
This is why, 50 years later, it is correct and fitting that we should revisit its work.
But if Great Society merits reconsideration, the key consideration should be how to strengthen it—not weaken or dismantle it. One-hundred thirty million people—roughly 40 percent of the country—rely on it for health care. Thirty million children rely on it for school meals—20 million families for nutritional assistance. To pull the rug out on so large a population without a viable alternative is both cruel and precipitous.
Democrats today are revisiting some of the ideas that Johnson’s White House considered but ultimately rejected, like a guaranteed basic family income. (In her campaign memoir, Hillary Clinton revealed that she came very close to proposing this policy.) They are also dusting off concepts that date back as far as Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, like single-payer or, at very least, universal health care.
These are the right questions to ask. Opportunity theory just might be inadequate for the 21st century American economy, and if that’s the case, government must rethink how it extends basic economic security—and with it, food and health security—to all Americans. Hours after ascending to the presidency, Johnson marveled at the persistence of challenges that first greeted him a quarter century earlier as a young congressman. It’s now been a half century since he bequeathed us the Great Society, and these same challenges are as urgent as ever before.
via POLITICO Magazine
January 28, 2018 at 10:50AMNo tags for this post.