The Scandal of the “Great Society”
In his first State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced: “This Administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty.” On August 20 of the same year Johnson signed into law his first antipoverty bill—the Equal Opportunities Acts—declaring, “Today, for the first time in the history of the human race, a great nation is able to make and is willing to make a commitment to eradicate poverty among it people.”
After defeating Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the November 1964 election, Johnson expanded his war on poverty themes in his January 4, 1965, State of the Union speech. He requested federal funds to assist the elderly, the poor, black Americans, needy children, immigrants, and the mentally ill. He requested legislation to improve education, to provide scholarships and loans, to increase mental and physical health services, to raise Social Security benefits, to double the war against poverty, to improve the inner city, to provide housing, to fight crime and delinquency, and to protect the environment. Johnson proposed to use government to “keep our nation prosperous…, to open opportunity to all our people…, and to improve the quality of American life.”
Each of these “Great Society” programs seemed absolutely necessary and worthwhile, but there were serious flaws lurking just below the surface. “It became an exercise in grantsmanship,” said Jack Flynn of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “In the end, those that got the money were the ones that wrote the best grant applications and had the best connections in Washington.”
The Great Society determined that the federal government could, on its own, eliminate poverty and transform the nation. It couldn’t. The programs were top-heavy, benefiting staff more than the poor they were intended to assist. Top-heaviness grew until the federal government became the nation’s top employer. To cite just one example, the Community Action Program grew to employ more than 180,000 people in 907 different agencies that spent about $1.2 billion every year.
Just ten years after Johnson initiated his Great Society program, his successor, Richard Nixon, declared that much of its structure needed dismantling. Referring to the ambitious programs launched in the 1960s, he said, “The intention…was laudable. But the results, in case after case, amounted to dismal failure…. Too much money has been going to those were supposed to help the needy and too little to the needy themselves.” Though hundreds of billion of dollars were spent by the federal government to fund Great Society initiatives, millions of Americans still lived in poverty, the problem of nation illiteracy only increased, and adequate medical care was still beyond the reach of masses of Americans.
Unfortunately, the Great Society created by Lyndon Johnson left another kind of legacy as well. It bred a new sense of dependency on the government to solve man’s troubles. President Johnson undoubtedly loved the country and wanted to help its people, but the Great Society was doomed from its inception. Johnson did his best to mobilize the federal government to solve the problems of the world, but he failed, and the nation has been saddled with the cost of that failure ever since.
In an essay entitled “Government Not the Solution to All Problems,” James Antle has said, “Notice the assumption that the choice is between government redistribution of wealth and the mass starvation of the poor. There can be no way to care for the poor without the government forcibly extracting compassion from people’s paychecks. This does not take into consideration that perhaps a compassionate society’s obligation to its unfortunate members belongs to families, communities and individuals, not government. Maybe there is more to compassion than simply endorsing new government programs and supporting politicians who promise to keep as many people as possible on the public dole.”
The Great Society also explains why the public tends to support government growth. In contemporary America, the state has become a “god,” a super-problem solver, and if you don’t support government solution to our problems you must be opposed to that problem being solved.
We are learning in America—or should be learning—that Big Government is like a huge monster with an insatiable appetite. The more it feeds, the more it grows in its ever-increasing lust.
August 14, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.