The Great Society (also known as the War on Poverty; poverty emerged victorious) is a set of programs instituted by President Lyndon B. Johnson and its associated legislation passed by Congress in an effort to combat poverty. It was criticized extensively by conservatives because it expanded the welfare system and increased citizen dependency on the government. It was also reputed to have destroyed the Black family unit.
War on Poverty
The Johnson administration's staed aims weere to ‘break the cycle of poverty, to make ‘taxpayers out of taxeaters,’ ‘give a hand up, not a handout.' In keeping with that theme, President Johnson said in August 1964, when the legislation was finally passed:
- ‘The days of the dole in our country are numbered.’
A subsidiary theme of the ‘war on poverty’ was that social programs were a way of heading off urban violence. Lyndon Johnson spoke of ‘conditions that breed despair and violence.’ He said: ‘All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs.’ Government agencies seeking to expand their budgets and extend their powers likewise encouraged the belief that social programs reduced the incidence of riots and other violence, while reduction of such programs would escalate civil disorder.
A diametrically opposite set of beliefs and predictions came from critics of the ‘war on poverty’ proposals. Senator Barry Goldwater predicted that these programs would ‘encourage poverty’ by encouraging ‘more and more people to move into the ranks of those being taken care of by the government.’ Nor did he expect expanded social programs to lead to a more harmonious society, for he saw their underlying philosophy as an ‘attempt to divide Americans’ along class lines, to ‘pigeon-hole people and make hyphenated Americans.’...Henry Hazlitt...said ‘we can expect the price tag to increase geometrically as the years go on.’”
- STAGE 1. THE ‘CRISIS: The ‘crisis’ was dependency on public assistance, so the question was: How much dependency was there at the time and was it increasing or decreasing before the new policies were instituted?...As of the time the ‘war on poverty’ programs began, the number of people who lived below the official poverty line had been declining continuously since 1960, and was only about half of what it had been in 1950. On the more fundamental issue of dependency, the situation was even more clearly improving. The proportion of people whose earnings put them below the poverty level without counting government benefits declined by about one-third from 1950 to 1965.
- STAGE 2. THE ‘SOLUTION’: The Economic Opportunity Act was passed in 1964, creating the Office of Economic Opportunity...(p.12)
- STAGE 3. THE RESULTS: The percentage of people dependent upon the federal government to keep above the poverty line increased. Although the number of such dependent people had been declining for more than a decade before the ‘war on poverty’ programs began, this downward trend now reversed itself and began rising within a few years after that program got under way. Official poverty continued its decline for some time, as massive federal outlays lifted many people above the official poverty line, but not out of dependency–the original goal.
- Overall federal spending on programs for the poor escalated as eligibility rules for welfare and Social Security were loosened, the size of benefits was increased, and unemployment insurance was made more available to more people, and for longer periods of time....The number of people receiving public assistance more than doubled from 1960 to 1977. The dollar value of public housing rose nearly five-fold in a decade and the amount spent on food stamps rose more than ten-fold. All government-provided in-kind benefits increased about eight-fold from 1965 to 1969 and more than twenty-fold by 1974. Federal spending on such social welfare programs not only rose in dollar terms and in real terms, but also as a percentage of the nation’s gross national product, going from 8 percent of GNP in 1960 to 16 percent by 1974.
- As for urban ghetto riots, they raged across the country during this era. Later, they declined sharply after the beginning of the Nixon administration, which opposed the whole ‘war on poverty’ approach and eventually abolished the Office of Economic Opportunity, which had been the spearhead of this program. Still later, during the eight years of the Reagan presidency–supposedly the nadir of neglect–major urban riots became virtually extinct.
- STAGE 4. THE RESPONSE:...no acknowledgment of failure....political and media proponents resolutely ignored the original goal of reducing dependency. The goal was instead redefined as reducing poverty by transferring resources. As former Johnson White House aide Hodding Carter III put it ‘millions of people were lifted out of poverty during the period, or had their plight considerably alleviated, by government programs and public expenditures.’ A member of President Johnson’s Cabinet suggested yet another criterion for success: `Ask the 11 million students who have received loans for their college education whether the Higher Education Act failed’....
In short, the test for whether a program was good for the country as a whole was whether those who personally benefited from it found it beneficial.
Another line of defense of failed policies has been to claim moral merit for their good intentions ....Finally, it was asserted that things would have been even worse, were it not for those programs. ‘The question is not what the bottom line is today–with poverty up–but where would we be if we didn’t have these programs in place?’ asked Professor Sheldon Danziger, director of the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty. ‘I think we’d have poverty rates over 25 percent.’ Even though poverty and dependency were going down for years before the ‘war on poverty’ began, Professor Danziger chose to assert that poverty rates would have gone up. There is no possible reply to these heads-I-win-tails-you-lose assertions, except to note that they would justify any policy on any subject anywhere, regardless of its empirically observed consequences.
Eventually, however, even official poverty began to rise, so that a larger number of people were in poverty in 1992 than were in poverty in 1964, when the "war on poverty" began.
By 1992, more than half of all black adults had never been married, quite aside from an additional 16 percent who had been either divorced or widowed. By contrast, only 21 percent of white adults had never been married. More than half of all black children–57 percent–were living with only one parent and another 7.5 percent were not living with either parent. Thus, only a little more than a third of black children were living in traditional twoparent households. Of 190,000 black children whose parents were currently still teenagers, only 5,000 were living with both parents.
- Everything you need to know about the war on poverty. Washington Post (January 8, 2014).
- n21 U.S. Bureau of Census, Current Population Records, Series P60-185 (Washington, D.C. General Printing Office 1993) p.ix. (p. 13-14)
- Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed, New York: Basic Books, 1996.