The Great Society was an ambitious legislative program which attempted to eliminate poverty and racial inequity within the United States. Learn about the creation of the program, its endeavors and its ultimate legacy.
Continuing the Initiative
Upon assuming the presidency in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson was tasked with the monumental assignment of continuing the initiatives of not only President John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, but of the welfare state that was created under President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.
Johnson was successful in implementing New Frontier goals, such as a major tax cut, the creation of VISTA (which was the domestic version of the Peace Corps) and ensuring the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which officially prohibited racial discrimination in the United States. Yet, that was only the beginning.
After securing a resounding victory in the 1964 presidential election over conservative rival Barry Goldwater, Johnson embarked on a mission to permanently end poverty and racial inequality within the United States. Johnson named his program of sweeping legislation (close to 400 pieces) to combat the national societal ills the Great Society. The legislation of the Great Society aimed at tackling poverty, racial injustice, urban decay, unemployment, national beautification and education reform, just to name a few.
A Better America
One aspect of Johnson's Great Society program was to improve the overall quality of American life. This meant addressing racial inequality as well as halting the decline of the American landscape. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a powerful foreshadowing to Johnson's Great Society's goal of ending racial inequality. Yet, while the legislation prohibited discrimination, the Act still failed to address the black fear of voting, especially in the Deep South.
Johnson decided to address this looming issue by supporting the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This landmark piece of legislation officially prohibited voter discrimination by preventing polling stations from issuing literacy tests prior to voting.
Another powerful piece of anti-discrimination legislation sought under the Great Society was the Immigration Act of 1965. This Act prohibited discrimination against immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. Improving life for Americans did not stop at anti-discrimination legislation. Johnson pursued sweeping legislation that focused on water quality, the environment, park renewal and beautification, highway safety and child safety among others.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was created in order to begin the revitalization process within the inner cities. Johnson also ushered in a renaissance of the arts with the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Arts. The overarching goal was to reduce the amount of concerns by Americans over uncontrollable issues, which would allow them to refocus their attention on helping create a stronger America.
Johnson made the battle against poverty in the United States the foremost goal of the Great Society. After issuing a proclamation that he would begin a 'War on Poverty', Johnson began the process of creating remarkable legislation, such as the Economic Opportunity Act, which, as you will soon see, provided a platform for massive social improvement and services. The goal was to end economic suffering throughout the nation.
Johnson began with revamping the healthcare system. The Great Society created two programs that would be nationally funded and benefit two groups of individuals: Medicare, which supplied coverage for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provided healthcare for those with a low income. Johnson also increased the welfare program in the United States.
The expansion of welfare included the beginning of the Food Stamp Program and aid to those families who could claim dependents. Additionally, the Model Cities Program helped provide cleaner, safer and cheaper living conditions for low-income families.
Johnson's Great Society also reformed education and the workforce. The Head Start Program was created to help students develop skills necessary to thrive within the academic community. Programs, such as the Job Corps, which helped transition youth into workers, and the Community Action Program, which subsidized grassroots community projects, helped remove the destitute from the streets and place them into a position of responsibility.
An Impractical Dream
There is no doubt that President Johnson's Great Society program was an ambitious attempt at ending poverty and racial inequality within the United States. However, the expectations of the Great Society were largely unattainable for two major reasons.
First, the program faced severe conservative backlash. Many conservative politicians believed that the Great Society had surpassed its legal right to federal power. The argument against the program rested on the notion that the federal government did not have the right to intervene in all aspects of American society. The federal government had become too involved, and the conservative fear was that this kind of intervention could not be sustained.
Second, the Great Society, with its 400-plus pieces of legislation, could not be continuously funded. While aspects of the program did receive funding, taxpayers became hesitant to continue funding a program that did not benefit them personally. Lastly, another major funding issue was due to the Vietnam War. The conflict had severely drained the appropriations reserved for the Great Society, which meant that many programs were left underfunded or unfunded completely.
By 1968, Johnson realized the Great Society program was too large and required too many moving parts to work effectively. He also understood that the program of ending poverty and racial injustice could not be attained as quickly as he desired. This was a goal that required several decades to complete rather than a few years.
Overall, the Great Society had some success in assisting the elderly, educating children, beautifying the United States and helping to bring racial injustice closer to its end. Yet, the overarching goals of the program are still being debated and still affect the United States to this day.
The Great Society, which attempted to end poverty and racial injustice in the United States, began under Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The program created many interesting initiatives. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to end racial discrimination at the ballot box. Medicare and Medicaid were created to provide healthcare to the elderly and impoverished. Endeavors, such as the 'War on Poverty' and Model Cities Program, attempted to alleviate the poor and counter the decay of urban society.
Unfortunately, the Great Society faced severe backlash from conservatives and taxpayers. The Great Society also became too large to sustain financially, especially with the war in Vietnam draining the federal budget. The goals of the Great Society still affect the United States in modern times.
When you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:
- Realize the connection between the election of 1964 and JFK's New Frontier
- Recall laws passed by Johnson's Great Society
- Remember reforms included in his legislation
- Find out why the Great Society came under attack from conservatives and tax payers