Great Society

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The Great Society was a set of liberal domestic programs proposed or enacted in the United States on the initiative of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969). Two main goals of the Great Society social reforms were the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. Civil rights laws were passed that permanently ended segregation and denial of the right to vote. Advocates for the poor came to power and rejected notions of the morally worthy poor in favor a direct attack on the structural barriers such as lack of education, inadequate facilities, and above all racism. New major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation were launched during this period. The Great Society in scope and sweep resembled the New Deal domestic agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but differed sharply in types of programs. Some Great Society proposals were stalled initiatives from John F. Kennedy's New Frontier. Johnson's success depended on his own remarkable skills at persuasion, coupled with the Democratic landslide in 1964 that brought in many new liberals. Johnson used secret teams of experts to craft his programs and failed to listen to the voters or build grass roots networks of supporters. When conservative times came the programs closed or languished, unless they had powerful constituencies as did civil rights and Medicare. Anti-war Democrats complained that spending on the Vietnam War choked off the Great Society. Richard Nixon continued many of the spending programs. While Ronald Reagan reduced funding or ended some of them, many of the these programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and federal education funding, continue to the present.

Economics and social conditions

Unlike the New Deal, which was a response to a severe economic crisis, the Great Society emerged in a period of prosperity.

Grave social crises confronted the nation. Racial segregation existed throughout the South. The Civil Rights Movement was gathering momentum, and in 1964 urban riots began within black neighborhoods in New York City and Los Angeles; by 1968 hundreds of cities had major riots that caused a severe political backlash. Foreign affairs were generally quiet except for the Vietnam War, which grew from limited involvement in 1963 to a large-scale military operation in 1968 that overshadowed the Great Society.

Ann Arbor Speech

Johnson presented his goals for the Great Society in a speech at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964. Speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin coined the phrase "the Great Society," and Johnson had used the expression from time to time before the Michigan speech, but he had not emphasized it until that occasion. In this address, which preceded the election-year party conventions, Johnson described his plans to solve pressing problems: “We are going to assemble the best thought and broadest knowledge from all over the world to find these answers. 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.”[1]

The 1965 legislative program and presidential task forces

'President Kennedy set up task forces comprised of scholars and experts to craft New Frontier legislation. A similar reliance on experts appealed to Johnson, in part because the task forces would work in secret and outside of the existing activist networks and directly for the White House staff. His staff created 14 separate task forces under presidential assistants Bill Moyers and Richard N. Goodwin. The average task force had nine members, and generally was comprised of governmental experts and academicians. Thirteen focused on finding innovative solutions to the issues of Agriculture, Anti-recession policy, Civil rights, Education, Efficiency and economy, Health, Income maintenance policy, Intergovernmental fiscal cooperation, Natural resources, Pollution of the environment, Preservation of natural beauty, Transportation, and Urban problems.

Their reports went to Moyers, who circulated them to the relevant agencies and set up review panels. Special attention was paid to persuading Congress to pass the legislation, but Johnson basically circumvented Congress, the media, and the interest groups. Johnson reviewed all the proposals with Moyers and Budget Director Kermit Gordon in late 1964. Many specific proposals were included in brief form in Johnson’s State of the Union address of January 1965.

The task-force approach, combined with Johnson's electoral victory in 1964 and his talents in obtaining congressional approval, were widely credited with the success of the legislation agenda in 1965. Critics would later cite the task forces as a factor in a perceived elitist approach to Great Society programs. Also, because many of the initiatives did not originate from outside lobbying, some programs had no political constituencies that would support their continued funding. The result was the ease in which they were later canceled or cut back.

The 1964 election and the Eighty-ninth Congress

With the exception of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Great Society agenda was not a widely discussed issue during the 1964 Presidential election campaigns. Johnson won the election with 61% of the vote, the largest percentage since the popular vote first became widespread in 1824, and carried all but six states. Democrats gained enough seats to control more than two-thirds of each chamber in the Eighty-ninth Congress with a 68-32 margin in the Senate and a 295-140 margin in the House of Representatives. The political realignment allowed House leaders to alter rules that allowed conservative Southern Democrats to kill New Frontier and civil rights legislation in committee, which aided efforts to pass Great Society legislation. In 1965 the first session of the Eighty-ninth Congress created the core of the Great Society. The Johnson administration submitted eighty-seven bills to Congress, and Johnson signed eighty-four, or 96%, arguably the most successful legislative agenda in American history. [2]

Major programs

Civil rights

The centerpiece of the Great Society was using the public support for the Civil Rights Movement, and building a new bipartisan coalition to pass three civil rights acts. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination and immediately ended segregation acress the country. The South immediately complied, with little resistance. Unexpectedly gender was added--against the opposition of liberals who said the time for women had not come. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting rights. It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations, but had little impact.

War on Poverty

The most ambitious and controversial part of the Great Society was its initiative to end poverty. The Kennedy administration had been contemplating a federal effort against poverty. Johnson, who as a teacher had observed extreme poverty in Texas among Mexican-Americans, launched an "unconditional war on poverty" in the first months of his presidency with the goal of eliminating hunger and deprivation from American life. The centerpiece of the War on Poverty was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to oversee a variety of community-based antipoverty programs. The OEO reflected a fragile consensus among policymakers that the best way to deal with poverty was not simply to raise the incomes of the poor but to help them better themselves through education, job training, and community development. Central to its mission was the idea of "community action," the participation of the poor themselves in framing and administering the programs designed to help them.

The War on Poverty began with a $1 billion appropriation in 1964 and spent another $2 billion in the following two years. It spawned dozens of programs, among them the Job Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the first summer jobs established to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay in school; "Volunteers in Service to America" (VISTA) , a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor; the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient; and Project Head Start, which offered preschool education for poor children.


The most important educational component of the Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, designed by Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel. It ended a long-standing political taboo by providing significant federal aid to public education, initially allotting more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start special education programs to schools with a high concentration of low-income children. The Act established Head Start, which had originally been started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer program, as a permanent program.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a National Teachers Corps to provide teachers to poverty stricken areas of the United States. It began a transition from federally funded institutional assistance to individual student aid.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 offered federal aid to local school districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability until it expired in 2002.



The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans. The legislation overcame the bitter resistance, particularly from the American Medical Association, to the idea of publicly-funded health care or "socialized medicine" by making its benefits available to everyone over sixty-five, regardless of need, and by linking payments to the existing private insurance system.

Medicare and Medicaid

Medicare was hospital and doctor care for all people retired and on Social Security. In 1966 welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the Medicaid program. Medicaid was created on July 30, 1965 through Title XIX of the Social Security Act. Each state administers its own Medicaid program while the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) monitors the state-run programs and establishes requirements for service delivery, quality, funding, and eligibility standards.

Arts and cultural institutions

National endowments for arts and humanities

In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as separate, independent agencies. Lobbying for federally funded arts and humanities support began during the Kennedy Administration. In 1964 the National Commission on the Humanities suggesteded that the emphasis placed on science endangered the study of the humanities from elementary schools through postgraduate programs. In order to correct the balance, it recommended "the establishment by the President and the Congress of the United States of a National Humanities Foundation." Support came from Johnson . In March 1965, the White House proposed the establishment a National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities and requested $20 million in start-up funds. The commission's report had generated other proposals, but the White House's approach eclipsed them. The administration's plan, which called for the creation of two separate agencies each advised by a governing body, was the version approved by Congress. Richard Nixon later dramatically expanded funding for NEH and NEA.[3]

Public broadcasting

After the First National Conference on Long-Range Financing of Educational Television Stations in December 1964 called for a study of the role of noncommercial education television in society, the Carnegie Corporation agreed to finance the work of a 15-member national commission. Its landmark report, Public Television: A Program for Action, published on January 26, 1967, popularized the phrase "public television" and assisted the legislative campaign for federal aid. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, enacted less than 10 months later, chartered the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as a private, non-profit corporation. The law initiated federal aid through the CPB for the operation, as opposed to the funding of capital facilities, of public broadcasting. The CPB initially collaborated with the pre-existing National Educational Television system, but in 1969 decided to start the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). A public radio study commissioned by the CPB and the Ford Foundation and conducted from 1968-1969 led to the establishment of National Public Radio, a public radio system under the terms of the amended Public Broadcasting Act.

Cultural centers

Two long-planned national cultural and arts facilities received federal funding that would allow for their completion through Great Society legislation. A National Cultural Center, suggested during the Franklin Roosevelt Administration and created by a bipartisan law signed by Dwight Eisenhower, was transformed into the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a living memorial to the assassinated president. Fundraising for the original cultural center had been poor prior to legislation creating the Kennedy Center, which passed two months after the president's death and provided $23 million for construction. The Kennedy Center opened in 1971.[4] In the late 1930s the United States Congress mandated a Smithsonian Institution art museum for the National Mall, and a design by Eliel Saarinen was unveiled in 1939, but plans were shelved during World War II. An 1966 act of Congress established the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as part of the Smithsonian Institution with a focus on modern art, in contrast to the existing National Art Gallery. The museum was primarily federally funded, although New York financier Joseph Hirshhorn later contributed $1 million toward building construction, which began in 1969. The Hirshhorn opened in 1974.[5]


Congress set up the Department of Transportation in October 1966; it began operations in spring 1967. The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided $375 million for large-scale urban public or private rail projects in the form of matching funds to cities and states and created the[Urban Mass Transit Administration (now the Federal Transit Administration). The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966 were enacted, largely as a result of Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed.

Consumer protection

In 1964 Johnson named Assistant Secretary of Labor Esther Peterson to be the first presidential assistant for consumer affairs.

Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning labels. Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings. Statute also authorizes permits HEW and FTC to establish and define voluntary standard sizes. The original would have mandated uniform standards of size and weight for comparison shopping, but the final law only outlawed exaggerated size claims. Child Safety Act of 1966 prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make its safe. Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children's sleepwear, but not baby blankets. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of meat which must meet federal standards.

Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968 required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on installment loan and sales; it did not stop spiraling consumer debt Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968 required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent practices in the sale of land. Radiation Safety Act of 1968 provided standards and recalls for defective electronic products.


Joseph A. Califano, Jr. has suggested that Great Society's main contribution to the environment was an extension of protections beyond those aimed at the conservation of untouched resources. [6] Discussing his administration's environmental policies, Lyndon Johnson suggested that "[t]he 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." At the behest of Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, the Great Society included several new environmental laws to protect air and water. Environmental legislation enacted included:

  • Clear Air, Water Quality and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments
  • Wilderness Act of 1964,
  • Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966,
  • National Trail System Act of 1968,
  • Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968,
  • Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965,
  • Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965,
  • Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965,
  • National Historic Preservation Act of 1966,
  • Aircraft Noise Abatement Act of 1968, and
  • National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

Local studies

New York City

The Great Society flourished in New York City, the rich and powerful center of American liberalism, then crashed. An important example came in medical care for those poorly served, which Johnson's advisers identified as a cause of poverty. Liberals within the City health department pushed through numerous large-scale, expensive reforms thanks to the progressive political and social climate that prevailed nationally. They added ambulatory care to their traditional preventive activities, made sure community members were involved in the planning and implementation of services, audited the quality of the care funded from public funds, and launched new efforts to solve health problems such as lead poisoning that were rooted in poverty. However, forces "below" and "above" constrained what they could accomplish. Newly empowered community activists were uncooperative and even hostile, while federal and state financing was unstable. [7]

The crisis of New York State's unforeseen and exorbitant Medicaid expenses doomed the funding for the City health department's efforts. State money was hurriedly moved to Medicaid shortfalls; only three neighborhood family-care centers were created, instead of the sixteen planned. Continued severe fiscal retrenchment would put a decisive end to reform. The continued flight of the middle class to the suburbs during the early 1970s and the consequent erosion of the tax base plunged New York City into a financial downward spiral that culminated in insolvency in 1975. The city was taken over mid-year by a "municipal assistance corporation", an independent coalition of investors that kept the city solvent by assuming the most immediate of its massive debts. The staff of the Department of Health was cut by one-fourth. In a series of triage decisions, department services were categorized as "life saving" versus "life enhancing," with the latter subject to cuts. The experience showed that if Great Society liberalism could not make it in New York City, it could not make it anywhere, as state after state repeated similar patterns.

The legacies of the Great Society

Immediately on passage of the first Civil Rights act in 1964, large scale rioting began in black neighborhoods, which escalated every summer during Johnson's years, until the "long hot summer" of massive violence against the shops and stores and police of the inner city became almost routine. The black riots played a major role in destroying political support for Johnson's Great Society. Crime rates climbed sharply, making cities physically dangerous and inner cities public schools and universities declined sharply. Many white ethnics of the old New Deal Coalition felt betrayed, and moved toward the Republican party. Labor unions reached their maximum strength, and began a steady, sharp decline, weakening the Democratic party in industrial states.

At national level, backlash against the "big government" solutions of the Johnson administration had begun to set in immediately upon passage. Johnson had circumvented the step of building a grass-roots support netweork because he wanted only experts to designs the Great Society, with no minimal political comproimises. Typical was the fate of the neighborhood health center program. Funding for the centers remained flat during the Nixon and Ford administrations, in spite of escalating health-care costs; beginning in 1970, the program was gradually transferred from the OEO to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where it stagnated. Not only was there no financial commitment, there was little political will to expand health and welfare services for the poor. On the other hand Medicare was enormously popular because it did have a very large, well-defined, active cadre of supporters in the population over age 65, and because it had its own tax base as part of Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid (the latter for poor people) drove up medical costs and squeezed the discretionary budget. Food stamps remained popular because they had support from both the inner cities and the farmers.

Additional Great Society programs became impossible after the GOP gains in the 1966 elections, as voters were angered by soaring crime and violence. The Democratic coalition splintered four ways, with George Wallace leading the segregationists in the Deep South, Hubert Humphrey leading the old New Dealers, city bosses and labor unions, and Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in bitter competition for the students and intellectuals whpo opposed the Vietnam war. There was no place for Johnson; his support collapsed after the long-hidden Vietnam War seized national attention in early 1968. Johnson stunned the nation by withdrawing from the presidential race. The Democratic nomination was bestowed, amidst tear gas and violence in Chicago, on Humphrey, who lost in a three way race to Nixon, as Wallace captured the Deep South.

Many Great Society initiatives, especially civil rights laws and programs that benefited the middle class, continue to exist in some form. Some programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, have been criticized as inefficient and unwieldy, but enjoy wide support and have grown vastly since the 1960s [8]. Federal funding of public and higher education has expanded since the Great Society era and has maintained bipartisan support. Federal funding for culture initiatives in the arts, humanities, and public broadcasting have repeatedly been targets for elimination, but have survived.

The War on Poverty

Interpretations of the War on Poverty remain controversial. The Office of Economic Opportunity was dismantled by the Nixon and Ford administrations, largely by transferring poverty programs to other government departments. Funding for many of these programs were further cut in President Ronald Reagan's first budget in 1981.

The gap between the expansive intentions of the War on Poverty and its relatively modest achievements fueled later conservative arguments that government is not an appropriate vehicle for solving social problems. The poverty programs were heavily criticized by conservatives, especially Charles Murray, who denounced them in his 1984 book Losing Ground as being ineffective and creating an underclass of lazy citizens. One of Johnson's aides, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., has countered that, "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."[6] The poverty rate for blacks fell from 55 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 1968.[9]. However, the poverty rate among black families fell dramatically from 1940 and 1960 (87 percent to 47 percent), suggesting poverty rates would have continued falling without the War on Poverty.[10]


In spite of the important gains in civil rights dating from the Great Society and the continuing expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, today's memory of it is now generally negative, with liberals rarely mentioning Johnson and conservatives systematically attacking it. Stanley B. Greenberg argues that the ideas of the Great Society:

have fallen into disrepute. They have come to represent narrow and unconvincing ideas that cannot organize the "facts" into a convincing story. Only when the historic rubble is cleared away and new models and ideas gain currency, will Democrats be able to take advantage of popular impulses that favor equity, populism and national effort.[11]

The conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s made the word "liberal" a term of reproach that liberals have largely abandoned in favor of "progressive."[12] Johnson became an issue in the heated 2008 Democratic primary contest when Senator Hillary Clinton, trying to make a point about presidential leadership by undercutting Senator Barack Obama’s constant references to Martin Luther King, the civil rights icon, said: “Dr King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.” She came under immediate attack from Democrats, who generally revere King and ignore Johnson.[13]

Further reading

see the detailed guide at Great Society/Bibliography

  • Andrew, John A. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Ginzberg, Eli, and Robert M. Solow, eds. The Great Society: Lessons for the Future (1974) 11 chapters on each programs, by experts; online edition
  • Helsing, Jeffrey W. Johnson's War/Johnson's Great Society: the guns and butter trap (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Kaplan, Marshall, and Peggy L. Cuciti; The Great Society and Its Legacy: Twenty Years of U.S. Social Policy (1986) online edition
  • Milkis, Sidney M. and Jerome M. Mileur, eds. The Great Society And The High Tide Of Liberalism (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Murray, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (1985), influential attack from the right excerpt and text search
  • Woods, Randall. LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (2006). A highly detailed scholarly biography excerpt and online search from
  • Zarefsky, David. President Johnson's War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History (1986) online edition


  1. see "President Johnson's speech at the University of Michigan"
  2. Unger, Irwin, 1996: 'The Best of Intentions: the triumphs and failures of the Great Society under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon': Doubleday, p. 104.
  3. See NEH online
  6. 6.0 6.1]
  7. James Colgrove, "Reform and Its Discontents: Public Health in New York City During the Great Society" Journal of Policy History v19#1 (2007) 3-28 in Project Muse
  8. Jonathan Engel, Poor People's Medicine: Medicaid and American Charity Care since 1965. (2006).
  9. see online
  10. See Sowell column
  11. Stanley B. Greenberg. " Liberalism: Beyond the Great Society and New Deal: Rediscovering People and Prosperity," in John F. Sears, ed. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Future of Liberalism (1991) p, 116.
  12. Jerome M. Mileur, The Great Society and Demise of New Deal Liberalism, in Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur, eds. The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism, (2005)online p. 411-55
  13. Tim Reid, "Hillary Clinton gaffe over Martin Luther King may cost votes in South Carolina," The Times (London) Jan. 12, 2008