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The Great Society was a set of domestic programs in the United States announced by President Lyndon B. Johnson at Ohio University and subsequently promoted by him and fellow Democrats in Congress in the 1960s. Two main goals of the Great Society social reforms were the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. 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.

Some Great Society proposals were stalled initiatives from John F. Kennedy's New Frontier. Johnson's success depended on his skills of persuasion, coupled with the Democratic landslide in the 1964 election that brought in many new liberals to Congress, making the House of Representatives in 1965 the most liberal House since 1938.[1]

Anti-war Democrats complained that spending on the Vietnam War choked off the Great Society. While some of the programs have been eliminated or had their funding reduced, many of them, including Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act and federal education funding, continue to the present. The Great Society's programs expanded under the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.[2]

Economic and social conditions

Unlike the old New Deal, which was a response to a severe financial and economic calamity, the Great Society initiatives came just as the United States' post-World War II prosperity was starting to fade, but before the coming decline was being felt by the middle and upper classes. President Kennedy proposed an across-the-board tax cut lowering the top bracket marginal Income tax in the United States by 20%, from 91% to 71%, which was enacted in February 1964 under President Johnson (three months after Kennedy's assassination). The tax cut also significantly reduced marginal rates in the lower brackets as well as for corporations. The gross national product rose 10% in the first year of the tax cut, and economic growth averaged a rate of 4.5% from 1961 to 1968.[3]

Johnson’s tax cut measure triggered what one historian described as “the greatest prosperity of the postwar years.” GNP increased by 7% in 1964, 8% in 1965, and 9% in 1966. The unemployment rate fell below 5%, and by 1966 the number of families with incomes of $7,000 a year or more had reached 55%, compared with 22% in 1950. In 1968, when John Kenneth Galbraith published a new edition of “The Affluent Society,” the average income of the American family stood at $8,000, double what it had been a decade earlier.[4]

Disposable personal income rose 15% in 1966 alone. Federal revenues increased dramatically from $94 billion in 1961 to $150 billion in 1967. As the Baby Boom generation aged, two and a half times more Americans would enter the labor force between 1965 and 1980 than had between 1950 and 1965.


Grave social crisis confronted the nation. Racial segregation persisted 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 conservative political backlash. Foreign affairs were generally quiet except for the Vietnam War, which escalated from limited involvement in 1963 to a large-scale military operation in 1968 that soon overshadowed the Great Society.

Conservative opposition

Despite conservatives who attacked Johnson's Great Society making major gains in Congress in the 1966 midterm elections, and with anger and frustration mounting over the Vietnam War, Johnson was still able to secure the passage of additional programs during his last two years in office. Laws were passed to extend the Food Stamp Program, to expand consumer protection, to improve safety standards, to train health professionals, to assist handicapped Americans, and to further urban programs.[5]

In 1968, a new Fair Housing Act was passed, which banned racial discrimination in housing[6] and subsidized the construction or rehabilitation of low-income housing units.[7] That same year, a new program for federally-funded job retraining for the hardcore unemployed in fifty cities was introduced, together with the strongest federal gun control bill (relating to the transportation of guns across State lines) in American history up until that point.[8]

By the end of the Johnson Administration, 226 out of 252 major legislative requests (over a four-year period) had been met, federal aid to the poor had risen from $9.9 billion in 1960 to $30 billion by 1968, one million Americans had been retrained under previously non-existent federal programs, and two million children had benefited from the Head Start program.

Athens, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, speeches

File:LBJ GreatSociety Speech crop.jpg
President Lyndon B. Johnson during commencement exercises at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964

President Johnson's first ever public reference to the "Great Society" took place during a speech to students on May 7, 1964, at Ohio University in Athens. "And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build the Great Society. It is a Society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled."

He later formally presented his specific goals for the Great Society in another speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on May 22, 1964. Speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin had coined the phrase "the Great Society," and Johnson had used the expression occasionally before the Michigan speech, but had not emphasized it. In this address, which preceded the election-year party conventions, Johnson described his plans to solve impending 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.[9]

1965 legislative program and presidential task forces

President Kennedy had employed several task forces composed of scholars and experts to craft New Frontier legislation and to deal with foreign affairs. The reliance on experts appealed to Johnson, in part because the task forces would work in secret and outside of the existing governmental bureaucracy and directly for the [White House] staff. Almost immediately after the Ann Arbor speech, 14 separate task forces began studying nearly all major aspects of United States society under the guidance of presidential assistants Bill Moyers and Richard N. Goodwin.

The average task force had nine members and generally was composed of governmental experts and academicians[citation needed]. Only one of the task forces on the 1965 legislative program addressed foreign affairs and foreign economic policy; the rest were charged with domestic policy (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).

After task force reports were submitted to the White House, Moyers began a second round of review. The recommendations were circulated among the agencies concerned and were evaluated by new committees composed mostly of government officials. Experts on relations with Congress were also drawn into the deliberations to get the best advice on persuading the Congress to pass the legislation. In late 1964 Johnson reviewed these initial Great Society proposals at his ranch with Moyers and Budget Director Kermit Gordon. Many of them were included in Johnson’s State of the Union address delivered on January 4, 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 later cited 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.

1964 election and the Eighty-ninth Congress

With the exception of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,[10] 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 he 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.[4]

The political realignment allowed House leaders to alter rules that had allowed 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 new Congress began by enacting long-stalled legislation such as Medicare and federal aid to education and then moved into other areas, including high-speed mass transit, rental supplements, truth in packaging, environmental safety legislation, new provisions for mental health facilities, a teachers’ corps, manpower training, Operation Headstart, aid to urban mass transit, a demonstration cities program, a housing act that included rental subsidies, and an act for higher education.[4] The Johnson Administration submitted eighty-seven bills to Congress, and Johnson signed eighty-four, or 96%, arguably the most successful legislative agenda in U.S. Congressional history.[11]

Major policy areas

Civil rights

Historian Alan Brinkley has suggested that the most important domestic achievement of the Great Society may have been its success in translating some of the demands of the civil rights movement into law.[12] Four civil rights acts were passed, including three laws in the first two years of Johnson's presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964[10] forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. 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[10] by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration law. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations.

War on Poverty

Main article: 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.

Federal funds were provided for special education schemes in slum areas, including help in paying for books and transport, while financial aid was also provided for slum clearances and rebuilding city areas. In addition, the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965 created jobs in one of the most impoverished regions of the country.[citation needed] The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 provided various schemes in which young people from poor homes could receive job training and higher education.[13]

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 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 youth develop marketable skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, 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; and the Food Stamp Act of 1964 (which expanded the federal food stamp program).[14]

Programs included 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. In addition, funding was provided for the establishment of community health centers to expand access to health care,[15] while major amendments were made to Social Security in 1965 and 1967 which significantly increased benefits, expanded coverage, and established new programs to combat poverty and raise living standards.[16] In addition, average AFDC payments were 35% higher in 1968 than in 1960, but remained insufficient and uneven.[17]


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 was signed into law on April 11, 1965, less than three months after it was introduced. 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. During its first year of operation, the Act authorized a $1.1 billion program of grants to states, for allocations to school districts with large numbers of children of low income families, funds to use community facilities for education within the entire community, funds to improve educational research and to strengthen state departments of education, and grants for purchase of books and library materials.[18] The Act also 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 Facilities Act of 1963, which was signed into law by Johnson a month after becoming president,[19] authorized several times more college aid within a five-year period than had been appropriated under the Land Grant College in a century. It provided better college libraries, ten to twenty new graduate centers, several new technical institutes, classrooms for several hundred thousand students, and twenty-five to thirty new community colleges a year.[20]

This major piece of legislaton was followed by the Higher Education Act of 1965, which increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a national Teacher Corps to provide teachers to poverty-stricken areas of the United States. The Act also 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.[21]



The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans.[22] 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.


In 1966 welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the Medicaid program. Medicaid was created on July 30, 1965 under Title XIX of the Social Security Act of 1965. 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 1963 three scholarly and educational organizations—the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Council of Graduate Schools in America, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa—joined together to establish the National Commission on the Humanities. In June 1964, the commission released a report that suggested 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."[23]

In August 1964, Congressman William S. Moorhead of Pennsylvania proposed legislation to implement the commission's recommendations. Support from the White House followed in September, when Johnson lent his endorsement during a speech at Brown University. In March 1965, the White House proposed the establishment of 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 dramatically expanded funding for NEH and NEA.[23]

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.[24]

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. A 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.[25]


Transportation initiatives started during President Johnson's term in office included the consolidation of transportation agencies into a cabinet-level position under the Department of Transportation.[26] The department was authorized by Congress on October 15, 1966 and began operations on April 1, 1967. Congress passed a variety of legislation to support improvements in transportation including The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 which 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), High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 which resulted in the creation of high-speed rail between New York and Washington, and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 a bill largely taken credit for by Ralph Nader, whose book Unsafe at Any Speed he claims helped inspire the legislation.

Consumer protection

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

The Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning labels. The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings. The statute also authorizes 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.

The Child Safety Act of 1966 prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make it safe. The Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children's sleepwear, but not baby blankets.

The Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of meat which must meet federal standards. The 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. The Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968 required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. The Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent practices in the sale of land. The 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.[27] In a message he transmitted to Congress, President Johnson said:

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 [against] development, but a creative conservation of restoration and innovation.

— Special Message to the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty; February 8, 1965[28]

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:


The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 included important elements such as rent subsidies for low-income families, rehabilitation grants to enable low-income homeowners in urban renewal areas to improve their homes instead of relocating elsewhere, and improved and extended benefits for relocation payments.[29]


Amendments made to the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act in 1964 extended the prevailing wage provisions to cover fringe benefits,[30] while several increases were made to the federal minimum wage.[31] In addition, a comprehensive minimum rate hike was signed into law that extended the coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act to about 9.1 million additional workers.[30]

The Legacies of the Great Society

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.[citation needed] Funding for many of these programs were further cut in President Ronald Reagan's first budget in 1981.[citation needed]

Alan Brinkley has suggested that "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."[12] 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."[27] The percentage of African Americans below the poverty line dropped from 55 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 1968.[32]

African-American family structure

Main article: African-American family structure

Economist Thomas Sowell argues that the Great Society programs only contributed to the destruction of African American families, saying "the black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life."[33]

See also




  1. ^ LIFE Magazine, 5th November 1965
  2. ^ Riley, Jason L. (2008). Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders. p. 98.
  3. ^ Revenue Act of 1964
  4. ^ a b c The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II by William H. Chafe
  5. ^ M.J. Heale, The Sixties in America: History, Politics, and Protest (2001)
  6. ^ The Housing status of black Americans By James Benjamin Stewart
  7. ^ The Penguin Encyclopedia of American History by Robert A. Rosenbaum and Douglas Brinkley
  8. ^ Truman to Carter: A post-War History of the United States of America by Peter J. Mooney and Colin Brown
  9. ^ President Johnson's speech at the University of Michigan from the LBJ Library
  10. ^ a b c Civil Rights Act of 1964
  11. ^ Unger, Irwin, 1996: 'The Best of Intentions: the triumphs and failures of the Great Society under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon': Doubleday, p. 104.
  12. ^ a b Alan Brinkley, "Great Society" in The Reader's Companion to American History, Eric Foner and John Arthur Garraty eds., ISBN 0-395-51372-3, Houghton Mifflin Books, p. 472
  13. ^ Mastering Modern World History by Norman Lowe
  14. ^
  15. ^ | the official site for Health IT information. Retrieved on 2013-07-15.
  16. ^ Social Security History. Retrieved on 2013-07-15.
  17. ^ Backlash against welfare mothers: past and present by Ellen Reese
  18. ^
  19. ^ Lyndon B. Johnson: Remarks Upon Signing the Higher Education Facilities Act. (1963-12-16). Retrieved on 2013-07-15.
  20. ^ Kennedy by Theodore C. Sorenson
  21. ^ The Bilingual Education Act
  22. ^ Social Security Act Amendments (1965)
  23. ^ a b How NEH got its start
  24. ^ Living Legacy: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  25. ^ The Hirshhorn Story
  26. ^ The United States Department of Transportation: A Brief History
  27. ^ a b What Was Really Great About The Great Society: The truth behind the conservative myths by Joseph A. Califano Jr.
  28. ^ Special Message to the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty
  29. ^
  30. ^ a b
  31. ^ Boosting paychecks: the politics of supporting America's working poor by Daniel Paul Gitterman
  32. ^ Mintz, S (2007). "The Great Society and the Drive for Black Equality". Digital History. University of Houston. Retrieved 2009-05-13. ((cite web)): External link in |work= (help)
  33. ^ War on Poverty Revisited Thomas Sowell, August 17, 2004