What Has the Great Society Wrought? — Poverty and Broken Families
Timothy S. Goeglein
Tim Goeglein is Vice President of External Relations for Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to “Helping Families Thrive.” Its web site is at www.focusonthefamily.com. This essay is adapted from a piece that appeared in Focus on the Family’s Citizen magazine.
Fifty years ago in 1966, there was a major revolution underway in American government that would have a massive impact on millions of families and marriages. It can all be traced back to one particular U.S. president and the unique circumstances that brought him to the Oval Office. It is a story being lionized in popular culture. But a half-century later, it is worth asking whether the celebratory tone is really an accurate reflection of what that revolution’s impact has actually been.
Earlier this year HBO transformed a hit Broadway play into a television special lauding President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1964 campaign and early term at the White House. The riveting narrative follows the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, the tragic event that catapulted Johnson from the vice presidency to commander in chief. The title of the program, “All the Way,” comes from one of the better-known pro-Johnson campaign slogans “All the way with LBJ” against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
Similarly a play called “The Great Society,” which premiered in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and which title is taken from the name of Johnson’s most important domestic policy programs, will be heading to Broadway in 2017. The president plays a starring role in that production too.
The name of Johnson’s massive domestic agenda was taken from a now-forgotten British professor named Graham Wallas who in 1914 outlined a series of domestic reforms he called the Great Society. Wallas’ proposals have faded with time but the slogan he coined entered the American lexicon as one of the most famous names in politics and is inseparable from the Johnson legacy.
In 1964 Johnson went to the University of Michigan to deliver one of the most consequential speeches of his early presidency, unveiling the Great Society programs that would become the largest, most intrusive expansion of the federal government ever.
“The challenge of the next half-century is whether we have the wisdom to use wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization,” said Johnson in soaring tones. “For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.” “Upward” was the operative word.
The gigantism of the Great Society made President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, and the progressive era initiatives of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt of early 20th century, appear relatively modest by comparison.
The revolution Johnson launched that day in Ann Arbor was the most far-reaching legislative transformation in our nation. How did it actually happen? What are the ramifications of Johnson’s vast promises more than a half-century later? And is Johnson’s legacy — especially its impact on the most vulnerable American families and marriages — worth celebrating on HBO, on Broadway, and in popular culture?
Johnson and his staff lost no time after Kennedy’s murder, beavering away around the clock to design a series of new programs that would be financed by America’s post-World War II abundance of wealth and prosperity. “I am a Roosevelt New Dealer,” Johnson said the day after the assassination. “Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste.”
When Johnson came to office, Americans overwhelmingly trusted the federal government to expand outward, upward, and across the continent. The war had given them outsized confidence in what Washington could achieve on a grandiose scale. The Johnson administration leveraged that confidence by radically altering the constitutional limits on legislation, regulation, and spending on a herculean scale.
The Johnson administration shifted the governance of the country from a constitutional republic rooted in localism to an opaque, vast regulatory state rooted inside the beltway. The sheer size and scope of government would grow exponentially during the Johnson era.
What the president outlined was a cornucopia of new programs and funding mechanisms that would seamlessly seep into almost every facet of life and with a special emphasis on urban America. Never before had the government deigned its solemn right and obligation to so deeply embed and inject itself into the lives of older Americans; into the education system at every level, from primary schooling to the higher learning; and perhaps most importantly, into the lives and personal decisions of the most vulnerable families in the country.
The relationship between the average citizen and the national government was altered forever.
Just as the affluence and suburbanization of middle class America was growing and expanding in ways that seemed boundless at the time, Johnson’s vision was to create an attendant kaleidoscopic role for Washington in a manner unparalleled since the Founding. The people would have less say in matters of governance; experts in the bureaucracy would have more.
Johnson cast his vision of the Great Society with strong support not only from most of his fellow Democratic Party members but also from large swaths of the Republican Party, including most prominently the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen and the president became cohorts for big government.
The promises emanating from the nation’s capital were sometimes borderline mystical: Cities large and small would be built and rebuilt with the federal government as the grand marshal of the funding parade. Poverty would be nearly eradicated from the American scene all together. Racial discrimination would be placed on a pathway to the ash heap of history. The public schools would be gleaming and bright. Families would feel unprecedented stability because Uncle Sam was going to be the new center of its strength and future. The promises seemed endless.
Ironically, the liberals of his own party expressed the most initial misgivings about Johnson’s vision and pledges. But they soon climbed aboard what quickly became a proverbial gravy train of federal spending built upon the central promise of the Great Society: that if the government was not expanded, the alternative would be national chaos rooted in endless upheaval across the nation especially in the urban core. Racial tension had been building since the late 1950s.
The Great Society, Johnson and his allies promised, would be the antidote to this brewing national dysfunction.
As Robert Caro and Randall Woods have made crystalline in their definitive histories of the Johnson era, the president intimidated feckless members of Congress into supporting the new federal leviathan that he was rapidly and systematically creating. Johnson knew how the “game” on Capitol Hill was played because he had become its legendary master during a long tenure as one of the most powerful majority leaders in Senate history. Members of Congress buckled under as so many toy soldiers, acquiescing to Johnson’s seemingly never-ending demands and deals.
Nineteen sixty-four will be remembered as one of the most eventful and pivotal years for new legislation ever. It was propelled forward by the sheer political dynamism of Johnson’s personality and outsized ambition. It was rooted in an almost palpable intensity captured so brilliantly and evocatively in HBO’s “All the Way.”
It all began with the Economic Opportunity Act, which created Johnson’s “war on poverty” matrix of programs. It was swiftly passed and signed into law. So were the Civil Rights Act and a major tax cut that had been one of President Kennedy’s main economic goals. Even before the tax cut became law, America was experiencing a remarkable boom in the economy, growing at six percent in the years between 1963 and 1966.
That kind of sustained economic growth was both an elixir and catnip to the creators of the modern administrative state because their new government programs could enjoy a steady and large funding stream. Taxpayer dollars would flow into Washington coffers as never before.
Johnson sailed into victory over Goldwater in the ’64 presidential campaign, crushing him by winning an astonishing 61 percent of the vote. Goldwater only won six states. Johnson even surpassed his political hero Franklin Roosevelt’s highest vote totals. Johnson’s landslide election allowed the Democratic Party to dominate both the House and Senate. This massive victory created a political lever of new votes to pass many more of Johnson’s legislative initiatives, including the most far-reaching education bill ever.
A beaming Johnson signed into law both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act, federalizing public and private education in a manner simply unthinkable in the American experience until that time.
Following those victories, Johnson and his team were the architects of two new massive entitlement programs that would provide health care for older Americans and for the poor, Medicare and Medicaid. Never before had there existed a permanent, immovable role for Washington in Americans’ health care coverage.
Medicare had about 20 million people enrolled by 1966; there are 60 million today; there will be 80 million in less than 20 years. Medicaid began with 4 million beneficiaries; today, that number is 70 million.
Johnson didn’t stop there. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed, as did the Immigration and Nationality Act that for the first time removed the preference for immigrants from Europe and put into place new provisions favoring immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The goal was to change the ethnic composition of America.
On and on these new gargantuan programs and departments flowed into existence — food stamps, arts and humanities agencies, environmental edicts, a Department of Transportation, and a Department of Housing and Urban Development, to name but a few. The modern welfare state was underway in a mere six months of the new Johnson presidency. It was bewildering.
Only the sky now seemed to be the limit for the propulsive expanse of government, and if it were not for the emergence of major political problems for the Johnson administration by the middle of 1965, one can only speculate what else the White House policy mandarins were planning, including more mandates and edicts from Washington.
What was becoming obvious after this blizzard of new legislation was that most of the funding projections for how much the Great Society would actually cost were not only wrong but wildly inaccurate. A half-century later, we know that the Great Society had cost American taxpayers a staggering $22 trillion. The annual cost of the entitlements alone, when coupled with Social Security and Obamacare, had helped contribute to a national debt surpassing $20 trillion and growing.
Fifty years after most of the Great Society programs were cemented into place and underway, it is almost impossible to measure the damage they inflicted on the most vulnerable marriages and families in the United States. This is perhaps the most dismal legacy of the Johnson years, and a sad testament to the vision of social planners who believed more government would mean stronger families and marriages.
In the Spring of 1965, a sociologist working in the Labor Department, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would later become an advisor to presidents of both political parties in the White House and a U.S. Senator, shared with President Johnson and his team a report he had compiled on the condition of black families in America.
Moynihan concluded that poverty and urban stress were contributing to the fracturing of families, resulting in 25 percent of all black children being born illegitimately. Moynihan called it a crisis.
Johnson used Moynihan’s study as an important part of a speech he delivered at Howard University in Washington D.C. that year, suggesting that among the solutions to the problems of poor black families should be a guaranteed, government-provided income. Johnson and his policy team were convinced that expanding government funding for broken families would help save them.
Instead, by incentivizing government funding of single mothers who did not marry the fathers of their children, and by expanding the panoply of welfare state programs to Americans who were already experiencing serious stress and hardship, a series of significant problems became an unstoppable conflagration often referred to as a tangle of pathologies.
Millions of Americans were soon engulfed in permanent chaos and dysfunction. Major metropolitan areas were comprised of block upon block of victimized children, broken families, and shattered lives.
A plague of fatherlessness ensued, leading to nearly 72 percent of all American black children being born without married parents by 2015. Marriage had become a rare and distant thing.
Did it have to be this way? When Johnson came to office in late 1963, more than 90 percent of all American babies had married parents. The 1960 census showed that nearly 9 of every 10 children from birth to 18 years of age lived with two married parents.
In fact, between 1940 and 1965, illegitimately had grown from 4 percent to 8 percent, but in the 25 years that would follow, those numbers would dramatically jump to nearly 30 percent by 1990.
Today more than 40 percent of all Americans are born to unmarried mothers. More than 3 of every 10 children live in some arrangement other than a two-parent home. Cohabitation continues to climb, and has become the acceptable norm for millions of Americans. The most recent Census Bureau report says barely half of all American children are living with both married biological parents.
The rejection of marriage, rooted in the 1960s has real ramifications: never-married adults who are 34 years old or younger are now 46 percent of that demographic.
The Great Society produced a miserable society in some of America’s most difficult neighborhoods, and the nuclear family became entangled with a federal government too often engineered by unaccountable and distant bureaucrats. Unparalleled family breakdown in America’s toughest neighborhoods is, in part, the sad result of Lyndon Johnson’s miscalculations and unworkable solutions.
We are living through the collapse of the traditional family and marriage as the norm and expectation for millions of Americans, especially in low-income communities.
Writer Myron Magnet observed that the “dream” of the Great Society has in reality become a “nightmare” for the very people the Great Society was designed to help. Poverty and single-mother childbearing were both higher after the Great Society than before, and the number of intact families experienced significant decline.
President Ronald Reagan, who had been the governor of California during the Johnson years, observed: “In the ’60s, we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
In a major analysis of Johnson’s war on poverty, the sociologist Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute concluded:
The official poverty picture looks even worse the more closely one focuses . . . the poverty rate for all families was no lower in 2012 than in 1966. The poverty rate for American children under 18 is now higher than it was then. The poverty rate for the working-age population (18-64) is also higher now than back then. The poverty rate for whites is higher now than it was back then. Poverty rates for Hispanic Americans . . . likewise are higher today than back then.
The consequences of broken families and higher poverty are profound. Reliable sociologists and demographers, liberal and conservative alike, concur that children from broken family structures are far much more likely to become involved in crime as intergenerational dependence on government grows.
Since the launch of the War on Poverty, criminality in America has taken an unprecedented upward turn within our nation. Although reported rates of crime victimization — including murder and other violent crimes — have been falling for two decades, the percentage of Americans behind bars has continued to rise. . . . As of year-end 2010, more than 5 percent of all black men in their 40s and nearly 7 percent of those in their 30s were in state or federal prisons . . .
James Piereson, the President of the William Simon Foundation who has studied urban issues for decades and cogently analyzed the 1960s, has concluded:
The scores of burned-out, crime-ridden, and bankrupt cities in America today must be counted as part of the legacy of the Great Society.
Perhaps HBO and Broadway should consider producing sequels on Johnson that shift away from the florid rhetoric and pledges of his election in 1964 to the reality of what the Great Society’s social upheaval has inflicted on those families who, a half-century later, have experienced and suffered the misery, dislocation, decay, and collapse that ensues when government seeks to replace families, marriages, and parents.
What is needed more than ever in America’s national life, from its urban centers to its exurbs, is a national commitment to the regeneration and renewal of marriage and the family. This restoration would be rooted not in more government programs but rather in a civil society matrix of churches and private-sector local initiatives unencumbered by an overweening managerial elite directed from Washington.
The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector writes:
Able-bodied, non-elderly adult recipients in all federal welfare programs should be required to work, prepare for work, or at least look for a job as a condition of receiving benefits.
The largest historical question is whether we have the moral imagination and national commitment to such an American renaissance? I believe we do. A great nation deserves nothing less than our rededication to the smallest but most powerful civilization of all, the nuclear family. *