"What Was Really Great About The Great Society" by Joseph A. Califano Jr.

What Was Really Great About The Great Society

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October, 1999

What Was Really Great About The Great Society

The truth behind the conservative myths

By Joseph A. Califano Jr.


If there is a prize for the political scam of the 20th century, it should go to the conservatives for propagating as conventional wisdom that the Great Society programs of the 1960s were a misguided and failed social experiment that wasted taxpayers' money.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, from 1963 when Lyndon Johnson took office until 1970 as the impact of his Great Society programs were felt, the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century. Since then, the poverty rate has hovered at about the 13 percent level and sits at 13.3 percent today, still a disgraceful level in the context of the greatest economic boom in our history. But if the Great Society had not achieved that dramatic reduction in poverty, and the nation had not maintained it, 24 million more Americans would today be living below the poverty level.

This reduction in poverty did not just happen. It was the result of a focused, tenacious effort to revolutionize the role of the federal government with a series of interventions that enriched the lives of millions of Americans. In those tumultuous Great Society years, the President submitted, and Congress enacted, more than 100 major proposals in each of the 89th and 90th Congresses. In that era of do-it-now optimism, government was neither a bad man to be tarred and feathered nor a bag man to collect campaign contributions, but an instrument to help the most vulnerable in our society.

What has the verdict been? Did the programs we put into place in the 1960s vindicate our belief in the responsibility and capacity of the national government to achieve such ambitious goals‹or do they stand as proof of the government's inability to effect dramatic change that helps our people?

A Fair Start

The Great Society saw government as providing a hand up, not a handout. The cornerstone was a thriving economy (which the 1964 tax cut sparked); in such circumstances, most Americans would be able to enjoy the material blessings of society. Others would need the kind of help most of us got from our parents‹health care, education and training, and housing, as well as a nondiscriminatory shot at employment‹to share in our nation's wealth.

Education and health were central to opening up the promise of American life to all. With the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Great Society for the first time committed the federal government to helping local school districts. Its higher education legislation, with scholarships, grants, and work-study programs, opened college to any American with the necessary brains and ambition, however thin daddy's wallet or empty mommy's purse. Bilingual education, which today serves one million individuals, was designed to teach Hispanic youngsters subjects like math and history in their own language for a couple of years while they learned English, so they would not fall behind. Special education legislation has helped millions of children with learning disabilities.

Since 1965 the federal government has provided more than a quarter of a trillion dollars in 86 million college loans to 29 million students, and more than $14 billion in work-study awards to 6 million students. Today nearly 60 percent of full-time undergraduate students receive federal financial aid under Great Society programs and their progeny.

These programs assure a steady supply of educated individuals who provide the human resources for our economic prosperity. When these programs were enacted, only 41 percent of Americans had completed high school; only 8 percent held college degrees. This past year, more than 81 percent had finished high school and 24 percent had completed college. By establishing the federal government's responsibility to finance this educational surge‹and the concept that access to higher education should be determined by ability and ambition, not dollars and cents‹we have amassed the trained talent to be the world's leading industrial, technological, communications and military power today.

Head Start, which has served more than 16 million preschoolers in just about every city and county in the nation and today serves 800,000 children a year, is as American as motherhood and apple pie. Like so many successes, this preschool program has a thousand parents. But how many people remember the battles over Head Start? Conservatives opposed such early childhood education as an attempt by government to interfere with parental control of their children. In the '60s those were code words to conjure up images of Soviet Russia wrenching children from their homes to convert them to atheistic communism. But Lyndon Johnson knew that the rich had kindergartens and nursery schools; and he asked, why not the same benefits for the poor?

The impact of the Great Society's health programs has been stunning. In 1963, most elderly Americans had no health insurance. Few retirement plans provided any such coverage. The poor had little access to medical treatment until they were in critical condition. Only wealthier Americans could get the finest care, and only by traveling to a few big cities like Boston or New York.

Is revolution too strong a word? Since 1965, 79 million Americans have signed up for Medicare. In 1966, 19 million were enrolled; in 1998, 39 million. Since 1966, Medicaid has served more than 200 million needy Americans. In 1967, it served 10 million poor citizens; in 1997, 39 million. The 1968 Heart, Cancer and Stroke legislation has provided funds to create centers of medical excellence in just about every major city‹from Seattle to Houston, Miami to Cleveland, New Orleans to St. Louis. To staff these centers, the 1965 Health Professions Educational Assistance Act provided resources to double the number of doctors graduating from medical schools, from 8,000 to 16,000. That Act also increased the pool of specialists and researchers, nurses, and paramedics. Community health centers, also part of the Great Society health care agenda, today serve almost eight million Americans annually. The Great Society's commitment to fund basic medical research lifted the National Institutes of Health to unprecedented financial heights, seeding a harvest of medical miracles.

Closely related to these health programs were efforts to reduce malnutrition and hunger. Today, the Great Society's food stamp program helps feed more than 20 million men, women, and children in more than 8 million households. Since it was launched in 1967, the school breakfast program has provided a daily breakfast to nearly 100 million schoolchildren.

Taken together, these programs have played a pivotal role in recasting America's demographic profile. In 1964, life expectancy was 66.6 years for men and 73.1 years for women (69.7 years overall). In a single generation, by 1997, life expectancy jumped 10 percent: for men, to 73.6 years; for women, to 79.2 years (76.5 years overall). The jump was highest among the less advantaged, suggesting that better nutrition and access to health care have played an even larger role than medical miracles. Infant mortality stood at 26 deaths for each 1,000 live births when LBJ took office; today it stands at only 7.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, a reduction of almost 75 percent.

These enormous investments in training medical and scientific experts and funding the National Institutes of Health have played a key part in establishing our nation as the world's leader in basic research, pharmaceutical invention, and the creation of surgical procedures and medical machinery to diagnose our diseases, breathe for us, clean our blood, and transplant our organs.

Those of us who worked with Lyndon Johnson would hardly characterize him as a patron of the arts. Yet think about what cultural life in America would be like without the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, which were designed to "create conditions under which the arts can flourish," and make fine theater and music available throughout the nation, not just at Broadway playhouses and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Endowment for the Arts has spawned art councils in all 50 states and more than 420 playhouses, 120 opera companies, 400 dance companies and 230 professional orchestras. Johnson also oversaw the creation of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, whose programs entertain three million people each year and are televised to millions more, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which attracts more than 700,000 visitors annually.

Another creature of the Great Society is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which today supports 350 public television and 699 public radio stations. These stations have given the nation countless hours of fine arts, superb in-depth news coverage, and educational programs such as Sesame Street that teach as they entertain generations of children. Now many conservatives say there is no need for public radio and television, since there are so many cable channels and radio stations. But as often as we surf with our TV remotes and twist our radio dials, we are not likely to find the kind of quality broadcasting that marks public television and public radio stations.

The Great Society's main contribution to the environment was not just passage of laws, but the establishment of a principle that to this day guides the environmental movement. The old principle was simply to conserve resources that had not been touched. Lyndon Johnson was the first president to put forth a larger idea:

"The air we breathe, our water, our soil and wildlife, are being blighted by poisons and chemicals which are the by-products of technology and industry. The society that receives the rewards of technology, must, as a cooperating whole, take responsibility for [their] control. To deal with these new problems will require a new conservation. We must not only protect the countryside and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities. Our conservation must be not just the classic conservation of protection and development, but a creative conservation of restoration and innovation."

Those new environmental commandments inspired a legion of Great Society laws: the Clear Air, Water Quality and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments, the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act, the 1965 Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, and the 1968 Aircraft Noise Abatement Act. They also provided the rationale for later laws creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Superfund that exacts financial payments from past polluters.

Of the 35 national parks established during the Great Society years, 32 are within easy driving distance of large cities. The 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act today protects 155 river segments in 37 states. The 1968 National Trail System Act has established more than 800 recreational, scenic, and historic trails covering 40,000 miles.

Equal Access

Above all else, Lyndon Johnson saw the Great Society as an instrument to create racial justice and eliminate poverty. Much of the legislation already cited was aimed at those objectives. But we directly targeted these areas with laser intensity. When LBJ took office, this country had segregated stores, theaters and public accommodations; separate toilets and water fountains for blacks; and restaurants, hotels, and housing restricted to whites only. Job discrimination was rampant. With the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Great Society tore down all the "whites only" signs. The 1968 Fair Housing Act opened up housing to all Americans regardless of race.

But the measure of the Great Society, particularly in this field, cannot be taken alone in statutes enacted. In one of the most moving speeches of the century, Johnson's 1965 Howard University commencement address, "To Fulfill These Rights," he said:

"But freedom is not enough. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race and then say, ŒYou are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights." Thus was born the concept of affirmative action, Johnson's conviction that it is essential as a matter of social justice to provide the tutoring, the extra help, even the preference if necessary, to those who had suffered generations of discrimination, in order to give them a fair chance to share in the American dream. Perhaps even more controversial today than when then set forth, affirmative action has provided opportunity to millions of blacks and has been a critical element in creating a substantial black middle class and an affluent black society in a single generation.

That speech provided another insight the nation ignored. In cataloguing the long suffering of blacks, Johnson included this passage: "Perhaps most important‹its influence radiating to every part of life‹is the breakdown of the Negro family structure. It flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled. So, unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together,all the rest‹schools, and playgrounds, and public assistance, and private concern‹will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation."

Conservatives charge the Great Society with responsibility for the disastrous aspects of the welfare program for mothers and children. But that program was enacted in the '30s and conservatives (and liberals) in Congress rejected Great Society efforts to revamp it. LBJ called the welfare system in America "outmoded and in need of a major change" and pressed Congress to stop conditioning welfare benefits on the man leaving the house and to create "a work incentive program, incentives for earning, day care for children, child and maternal health, and family planning services." In the generation it has taken the nation to heed that warning, millions of children's lives have been savaged.

In the entire treasury of Great Society measures, the jewel Lyndon Johnson believed would have the greatest value was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law opened the way for black Americans to strengthen their voice at every level of government. In 1964 there were 79 black elected officials in the South and 300 in the entire nation. By 1998, there were some 9,000 elected black officials across the nation, including 6,000 in the South. In 1965 there were five black members of the House; today there are 39.

Great Society contributions to racial equality were not only civic and political. In 1960, black life expectancy was 63.6 years, not even long enough to benefit from the Social Security taxes that black citizens paid during their working lives. By 1997, black life expectancy was 71.2 years, thanks almost entirely to Medicaid, community health centers, job training, food stamps, and other Great Society programs. In 1960, the infant mortality rate for blacks was 44.3 for each 1,000 live births; in 1997, that rate had plummeted by two-thirds, to 14.7. In 1960, only 20 percent of blacks completed high school and only 3 percent finished college; in 1997, 75 percent completed high school and more than 13 percent earned college degrees.

In waging the war on poverty, congressional opposition was too strong to pass an income maintenance law. So LBJ took advantage of the biggest automatic cash machine around: Social Security. He proposed, and Congress enacted, whopping increases in the minimum benefits that lifted some two million Americans 65 and older above the poverty line. In 1996, thanks to those increased minimum benefits, Social Security lifted 12 million senior citizens above the poverty line.

The combination of that Social Security increase, Medicare and the coverage of nursing home care under Medicaid (which today funds care for 68 percent of nursing home residents) has had a defining impact on American families. Millions of middle-aged Americans, freed from the burden of providing medical and nursing home care for their elderly parents, suddenly were able to buy homes and (often with assistance from Great Society higher education programs) send their children to college.

No Great Society undertaking has been subjected to more withering conservative attacks than the Office of Economic Opportunity. Yet the War on Poverty was founded on the most conservative principle: Put the power in the local community, not in Washington; give people at the grassroots the ability to stand tall on their own two feet.

Conservative claims that the OEO poverty programs were nothing but a waste of money are preposterous‹as preposterous as Ronald Reagan's quip that "LBJ declared war on poverty and poverty won." Eleven of the 12 programs that OEO launched in the mid-'60s are alive, well and funded at an annual rate exceeding $10 billion; apparently legislators believe they're still working. Head Start, Job Corps, Community Health Centers, Foster Grandparents, Upward Bound (now part of the Trio Program in the Department of Education), Green Thumb (now Senior Community Service Employment), Indian Opportunities (now in the Labor Department) and Migrant Opportunities (now Seasonal Worker Training and Migrant Education) were all designed to do what they have been doing: empowering individuals to stand on their own two feet.

Community Action, VISTA Volunteers, and Legal Services continue to put power in the hands of individuals down at the grassroots level. The grassroots that these programs fertilize just don't produce the manicured laws that conservatives prefer. Only the Neighborhood Youth Corps has been abandoned‹in 1974, after enrolling more than five million individuals. Despite the political rhetoric, every president, Ronald Reagan included, has urged Congress to fund these OEO programs or has approved substantial appropriations for them.

A Better Deal

The Great Society confronted two monumental shifts in America: the urbanization of the population and the nationalization of commercial power. For urban America, it created the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It drove through Congress the Urban Mass Transit Act, which has given San Franciscans BART, Washingtonians Metro, Atlantans MARTA, and cities across America thousands of buses and modernized transit systems. The 1968 Housing Act has provided homes for more than 7 million families. The Great Society also created Ginnie Mae, which has added more than $1 billion to the supply of affordable mortgage funds, and privatized Fannie Mae, which has helped more than 30 million families purchase homes.

The '60s also saw a nationalization of commercial power that had the potential to disadvantage the individual American consumer. Superstores and super-corporations were rapidly shoving aside the corner grocer, local banker, and independent drug store. Automobiles were complex and dangerous, manufactured by giant corporations with deep pockets to protect themselves. Banks had the most sophisticated accountants and lawyers to draft their loan agreements. Sellers of everyday products‹soaps, produce, meats, appliances, clothing, cereals, and canned and frozen foods‹packaged their products with the help of the shrewdest marketers and designers. The individual was outflanked at every position.

Sensing that mismatch, the Great Society produced a bevy of laws to level the playing field for consumers: auto and highway safety for the motorist; truth in packaging for the consumer; truth in lending for the home-buyer, small businessman and individual borrower; wholesome meat and wholesome poultry laws to enhance food safety. It created the Product Safety Commission to assure that toys and other products would be safe for users and the Flammable Fabrics Act to reduce the incendiary characteristics of clothing and blankets. To keep kids out of the medicine bottle we proposed the Child Safety Act.

The revolution in transportation led to the creation of the National Transportation Safety Board, renowned for its work in improving air safety, and the Department of Transportation.

In numbers of Americans helped, the Great Society exceeds in domestic impact even the New Deal of LBJ's idol, Franklin Roosevelt. But far more profound and enduring are the fundamental tenets of public responsibility it espoused, which influence and shape the nation's public policy and political dialogue to this day.

Until the New Deal, the federal government had been regarded as a regulatory power, protecting the public health and safety with the Food and Drug Administration and enforcing antitrust and commercial fraud laws to rein in concentrations of economic power. With the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the other alphabet agencies, FDR took the government into deeper regulatory waters. He also put the feds into the business of cash payments: welfare benefits, railroad retirement, and Social Security.

Johnson converted the federal government into a far more energetic, proactive force for social justice‹striking down discriminatory practices and offering a hand up with education, health care, and job training. These functions had formerly been the preserve of private charities and the states. Before the Johnson administration, for example, the federal government was not training a single worker. He vested the federal government with the responsibility to soften the sharp elbows of capitalism and give it a beating, human heart; to redistribute opportunity as well as wealth.

For the public safety, Johnson took on the National Rifle Association and drove through Congress the laws that closed the loophole of mail order guns, prohibited sales to minors, and ended the import of Saturday night specials. He tried unsuccessfully to convince Congress to pass a law requiring the licensing of every gun owner and the registration of every gun.

Spotting the "for sale" signs of political corruption going up in the nation's capital, Johnson proposed public financing of presidential campaigns, full disclosure of contributions and expenses by all federal candidates, limits on contributions and eliminating lobbying loopholes. He convinced Congress to provide for public financing of Presidential campaigns through the income-tax checkoff. But they ignored his 1967 warning:

"More and more, men and women of limited means may refrain from running for public office. Private wealth increasingly becomes an artificial and unrealistic arbiter of qualifications, and the source of public leadership is thus severely narrowed. The necessity of acquiring substantial funds to finance campaigns diverts a candidate's attention from his public obligations and detracts from his energetic exposition of the issues."

Fear Of The L-Word

Lyndon Johnson didn't talk the talk of legacy. He walked the walk. He lived the life. He didn't have much of a profile, but he did have the courage of his convictions, and the achievements of his Great Society were monumental.

Why then do Democratic politicians who battle to preserve Great Society programs ignore those achievements? For the same reason Bill Clinton came to the LBJ library on Johnson's birthday during the 1992 campaign and never spoke the name of Lyndon Johnson or recognized Ladybird Johnson, who was sitting on the stage from which he spoke.

The answer lies in their fear of being called "liberal" and in their opposition to the Vietnam War. In contemporary America politicians are paralyzed by fear of the label that comes with the heritage of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Democrats rest their hopes of a return to Congressional power on promises to preserve and expand Great Society programs like Medicare and aid to education, but they tremble at the thought of linking those programs to the liberal Lyndon. The irony is that they seek to distance themselves from the president who once said that the difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals eat only their enemies.

Democratic officeholders also assign Johnson the role of stealth president because of the Vietnam War. Most contemporary observers put the war down as a monumental blunder. Only a handful‹most of them Republicans‹defend Vietnam as part of a half-century bipartisan commitment to contain communism with American blood and money. Seen in that context, Vietnam was a tragic losing battle in a long, winning war‹a war that began with Truman's ordeal in Korea, the Marshall Plan, and the 1948 Berlin airlift, and ended with the collapse of communism at the end of the Reagan Administration.

Whatever anyone thinks about Vietnam and however much politicians shrink from the liberal label, it is time to recognize‹as historians are beginning to do‹the reality of the remarkable and enduring achievements of the Great Society programs. Without such programs as Head Start, higher-education loans and scholarships, Medicare, Medicaid, clear air and water, and civil rights, life would be nastier, more brutish, and shorter for millions of Americans. l


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