"President Johnson launches his Great Society ” was the headline after the State of the Union address for President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. The 1965 speech outlined the legislation Johnson wanted passed in his effort to eliminate poverty, improve civil rights and implement greater environmental protections.
Where the Great Society Originated
The term Great Society itself originated in L.B.J.’s May 1964 speech at the University of Michigan. The concepts in it were part of LBJ’s presidential campaign and, some, an extension or expansion of President John F. Kennedy’s policies. The Great Society plan with more government funded healthcare, more education spending, urban renewal, more environmental protections, crime prevention prioritization and more benefits to the old and poor are credited with Lyndon B. Johnson winning the presidency over Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.
What the Great Society Entailed
The Great Society proposal led to several pieces of legislation. The Housing and Urban Development or HUD was created to develop affordable housing in the inner city. Fannie Mae was privatized to offer lower cost home loans to those who might not qualify for bank loans; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s relaxed lending standards and no money down loans were partially to blame for the 1990s and 2000s property bubble that collapsed in 2007.
Medicare was created to provide health insurance to all on Social Security. Medicaid was created in 1966, providing a form of health insurance for those on welfare. One of the pillars of the Affordable Care Act or ACA, also known as Obamacare, was raising the income level for which people qualified for Medicaid, in many places doubling the number of people eligible for Medicaid. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 expanded the federal food stamp program providing funds to those whose incomes fall below specific thresholds to buy food. The Great Society legislation loosened the definition of disability used to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act increased federal funding to disadvantaged students, providing more funds to school districts with a large number of poor children. Project Head Start received additional funding for childcare for the poor of children under the age of 7. The increased funding was based on studies that suggested intensive childhood intervention for young children increased academic achievement later in life; subsequent studies have found that all such intervention benefits fade by third grade except for the most neglected children. The Higher Education Act shifted federal education funding for college from grants to schools to individual grants and loans. The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 provided federal money for teaching bilingual students; this program expired in 2002.
The Highway Beautification Act was intended to clear highways of blight. The Urban Mass Transit Administration was created to develop more rail projects; the High Speed Ground Transportation Act passed in 1965 created high speed rail between New York City and Washington, D.C. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set federal safety standards for vehicles, created what eventually became the NHTSA and led to mandatory seat belt usage and DWI laws.
The Great Society funded the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports today around 350 public television stations and about 700 public radio stations.
The Volunteers in Service to America or VISTA program was intended to be a domestic version of the Peace Corps.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was part of the Great Society. It outlawed discrimination on the basis of race in accommodations and in public venues, permitting federal funds to be withheld from school districts that remained segregated. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to eliminate voter qualifications like poll taxes and literacy tests that disproportionately made it harder for blacks to vote.
The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 eliminated national origin quotas in immigration law that limited the immigration of those from nations outside of Europe. The end result was a large influx of Asian, Mexican, Central American and African immigrants and massive growth of the non-white population in the United States. All population growth in the U.S. today is due to immigrants who arrived since 1965 and their descendants.
Results of the Great Society
The poverty rate was falling before the Great Society legislation. It continued to fall through the 1960s, from 19% in 1964 to 12% in 1969. It reached a low of 11% in 1973 before rising and remaining in the mid-teens.
One of the interesting side effects of the Great Society was the aid programs intended to help widows with children and the fact that they could be used by unmarried mothers as well. This led to a rise in the illegitimacy rate across the nation. The Moynihan Report of 1965 considered black illegitimacy rates of 25% a crisis then, while illegitimacy for blacks rose to 75% by 2010. Illegitimacy rose to 30% for whites and 50% for Hispanics. In short, the poverty programs that provided money to unmarried mothers equal to that of widows resulted in a huge spike of never-married mothers. Some of these couples cohabit outside of marriage, but their odds of separation before a child reaches age 16 are 80%, whereas a married couple of the same income has a 25% chance of divorce before the age of 16. In short, the biggest impact of the Great Society has been the erosion of the nuclear family. The lack of a married father in the home increases the odds of a child becoming truant, using illegal drugs, joining a gang, dropping out of school, going to jail, suffering mental illness and having a child out of wedlock are two to three times higher for never-married that split up when the child is young and women who have children by several different fathers.
Breakup of the family thus cannot be traced to poverty, because poverty rates were actually higher in the 1950s, before the Great Society and when poverty rates were higher than the 1960s, much less the 1990s when 2 out of 3 black children were born to unwed mothers.
Perhaps the biggest impact of the Great Society is the growth of government programs to address poverty. In 2013, Social Security was the largest single line item of the federal budget at 23.55% of spending. National defense was 18.33%. Income security was 15.53%. Medicare was 14.41%. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other healthcare programs thus grew to half of all federal spending by 2014.