Economics, Entitlements, Society and Culture, U.S. Economy

“The ‘Great Society’ At 50”: A Q&A with Nicholas Eberstadt

Image Credit: By Yoichi R. Okamoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: By Yoichi R. Okamoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The monograph “The ‘Great Society at 50” by AEI scholar Nicholas Eberstadt was released yesterday. May 22nd, Thursday, marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” address. “The Great Society pledge, and the fruit this would ultimately bear, profoundly recast the common understanding of the ends of governance in our country.” Eberstadt’s work looks at the legacy of the Great Society from the perspectives of civil rights and poverty. Here Eberstadt answers a few questions on what the Great Society effort got right, the role of race in our lives today, and why the number of men working or seeking employment has decreased.

In a nutshell, what have been the biggest successes and failures of the Great Society endeavor?

The Great Society’s single greatest accomplishment was putting a complete and final end to legalized racial discrimination against African Americans. Over the past two generations, America has also almost completely eliminated 1960s-style poverty in our country—although curiously our government seems unaware of its achievement here.

On the other hand, the Great Society launched a brave new welfare state rife with unintended consequences for our society. Means tested-welfare dependency has never been as prevalent in America as it is today—not even in the depths of the Depression. And our “anti-poverty” programs must take some share of the responsibility for two of the most troubling trends in modern America: the massive “flight from work” by men, and the breakdown of the family. Our social welfare programs may not have caused these phenomena—but they indisputably have helped to finance them.

You write that LBJ’s “quest to end racial discrimination and racial inequality by harnessing the ‘engine of national power’ to eradicate them may only count as qualified success–but on the scales of history it weighs as an immense success nonetheless, warts and all.” This sounds a bit contradictory. Could you elaborate?

It is impossible for most Americans alive today to recall the smell or feel of Jim Crow. And I think it is probably impossible for most young Americans to imagine—not just to recognize, but fully to envision—what daily life under legalized, institutionalized racial discrimination was really like for Americans on both sides of the old “color barrier.” And that is a very good thing—it means that inglorious chapter of our history has finally and decisively been banished to the past. Now the Constitution works for everyone.

I argue this is a tremendous advance for our country. We are a more decent country now on account of this. But the end of legalized discrimination against African Americans can hardly be regarded as the end of the story. America is a much more multi-ethnic society today than in 1965, thanks in large part to immigration. But we have not yet reached the ideal of a truly color-blind society. And ironically, some of our government’s civil rights efforts have inadvertently reinforced the role of race in our daily life.

Could you explain how some of the government’s efforts actually reinforced the role of race?

Well of course race-preference policies are explicitly racialist, even if they are intended to redress historical injustices. The affirmative action world of quotas, goals, preferences, set asides and all the rest becomes racialist the moment these discriminate against a more qualified candidate on the basis of race. After three-plus decades of litigation and Supreme Court decisions–from the Bakke case in 1978 to the Schuette case this past spring–American jurisprudence is slowly redressing these excesses. But it looks to me as if it reaching the goal of a truly colorblind society will be a process measured in in historical time.

Do you have any thoughts on the recent SCOTUS affirmative action case?

The dilemma for US government in our era of affirmative action is how to attempt to redress old racial injustices without creating new ones in the process. Our Constitution protects and upholds the rights of the individual. Collective guilt is alien to our tradition—and offensive to it.

Unfortunately now we must confront the new phenomenon of institutionalized “reverse discrimination” as well as the older, more familiar forms of prejudice and discrimination. The recent decision is a response to those new realities. Sorting all this out is going to take a long time, I expect.

“The War on Poverty was grounded in a set of presumptions about our economy and society,” you say. What were some of these presumptions?

As I note in “The ‘Great Society’ At 50”:

The problem of poverty amid general affluence [was regarded] mainly a bold but technocratic question—to be answered through straightforward official redirection of national resources to fill the country’s “income gap.” …Guided by experts from the academy and elsewhere, these social programs could, with time, systemati­cally convert virtually all of the underprivileged into full participants in the American Dream.

The conceit that possessed the initial troop of pov­erty warriors…was that challenge inherent in the project of eliminating poverty in America was not in essence very different from that of the project for sending a man to the moon. In their view, both tasks could be successfully engineered by a confident government with sufficient resources, know-how, and commit­ment behind it. This outlook exemplifies what Friedrich Hayek termed “scientism,” pure and simple: misapplication of techniques and theories from the natural sciences to other, patently unsuitable realms.

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations were the era of the “Best and the Brightest”—in journalist David Halberstam’s ironic turn of phrase. The hubris of Washington’s new antipoverty programs in the 1960s would seem shocking—unfathomable—to decision-makers and program administrators today.

Do we need to spend more or less on antipoverty programs, and where might the money come from?

Let me suggest this is not the right way of framing the question. Quite the contrary: if we presume that government entitlement transfers are the answer to the poverty problem, we are pretty much doomed to failure before we even start.

For a healthy national community of prosperous and independent citizens, we need a nation with strong families, solid education, a serious work ethic, and a good jobs market. Anti-poverty programs can only substitute for these fundamentals—and unfortunately such programs are necessarily rather limited and imperfect substitutes. Of course there is a role for public resources in addressing public need—but such government resources can be targeted more efficiently and intelligently than we are doing today.

AEI is now promoting a whole range of studies under the theme of “The New War on Poverty”, elaborating on some of these very points: stay tuned…

You write that “‘consumption poverty’ afflicted less than 4 percent of our total population in 2008,” citing research published by the Brookings Institution. Should we measure poverty by consumption level rather than income level? How might this affect our understanding of and approach to poverty?

Our official US poverty measure is hopelessly flawed. Almost everyone who studies poverty in America agrees on that much: experts only disagree amongst themselves on which flaws in the current “poverty rate” they find the most grievous.

I offer my own critique in “The ‘Great Society’ At 50”:

The central and irresolvable trouble with the official poverty rate is that it presumes an immediate and exact equivalence between income levels and consumption levels—so that any home in any year with a reported income level below the poverty line must perforce also be constrained to sub-poverty-line spending power… In our real-world America, by contrast, income is a poor predictor of spending power for lower-income groups at any given point in time—and that predictive power has dramatically worsened over the course of our postwar era…This growing discrepancy between income and expenditures on the part of the poorer strata in recent decades…means that people reporting ostensibly poverty-level incomes are less and less likely to be consigned to poverty-level living standards, as that standard was originally conceived in the early 1960s.

In effect, we have been using a broken compass to set our course in our long War on Poverty. If we looked at spending power and living standards rather than reported pretax annual income, we would appreciate just how much progress has already been achieved in uplifting our very most vulnerable strata. The poor are not well to do—they are poorer than the rest of America. But their living standards have been rising over time, along with those of the rest of the nation.

This key insight is lost if we rely only on the official poverty rate: according to that measure, the share of our population living in absolute (not relative) poverty was no lower in 2012—the most recent such soundings available–than it had been in 1966, near the start of the War On Poverty. In fact, our official poverty figures suggest a slightly higher share of the country lives below the poverty today than back in LBJ’s time! That calculation doesn’t pass the most important of all statistical tests: the laugh-out-loud test.

More people are working now than 50 years ago but fewer men are employed—both as a proportion of the total workforce, and as a share of all adult men of working age. You write that 28% of men 20 or older nowadays neither have work nor are looking for it, as opposed to the corresponding 1964 rate of less than 16%. What might explain the decrease both in employed men, and those seeking employment?

Back in January 1964, men accounted for nearly two thirds of the US workforce (65.6%). Exactly 50 years later, men made up only just over half of the workforce (52.8%).

Women are much more likely to earn money from paid work outside the home today than 50 years ago—despite today’s awful labor market, the percentage of women with paid jobs is almost 20 points higher than it was half a century earlier (55.5% in January 2014 vs. 35.8% in January 1964 for women 20 and older). Yet the opposite is true for men, as you rightly note: over those same decades, the corresponding “work rate” has dropped by over 12 points (from 76.9% to 64.6%).

So what exactly is going on here? Part of the declining “work rate” for men is simply the consequence of population aging: all other things being equal, we would still expect a lower ratio of employment to population for adult men as the proportion near or in retirement ages rises.

But the “aging effect” can only account for part of the declining work rates for modern American men. We can see this is we look at men 25-54 years of age—traditionally, a prime working cohort. Between January 1964 and January 2014, the percentage of such prime working age men with jobs fell by 10 points (93.4% vs. 83.3%). This is not just a reflection on our current job outlook, though. Fifty years ago, all but 3% of that group had work or were looking for it; today almost 12% are neither working nor looking for work. Thus, for every unemployed American man between the ages of 25 and 54 today, there are two more who are checked out of the workforce altogether.

This is the “flight from work” to which I refer in “The ‘Great Society’ At 50.” It is a mass phenomenon—and a worrisome one for a whole variety of reasons. We need to understand it much better than we do at present. But we have to start by recognizing this flight in the first place.

Mens flight from work since 1964

Do you think people’s attitude toward welfare has changed in the last 50 years?

Well, public attitudes toward need-based public assistance have certainly undergone a sea-change. If they had not, the current prevalence of participation in such government programs would be unthinkable. Today (2012) something like 30% of all Americans live in homes that accept at least one means-tested government anti-poverty benefit: food stamps, WIC, Medicare, SSI money, those sorts of things. And the great majority of people obtaining these benefits are officially counted among the poor. For two generations we have been defining dependency upwards. That is, I would submit, a troubling trend for the fiber of our society—I would even suggest it is a dangerous one.

The American middle class is under great pressure these days, as we all know. One underappreciated sources of such pressure is the rising tide of entitlement dependence. How many people can really regard themselves as part of the middle class if they are at the same time applying for money, goods or services from programs where eligibility is ostensibly conditioned on poverty?

Final thoughts?

Yes: I’d like to mention the “Moynihan Report”, the powerful and in many ways prophetic study Daniel Patrick Moynihan—later a Harvard Professor, and eventually US Senator (D-NY, 1977-2003)—wrote while he was Assistant Secretary of Labor, just months after LBJ’s “Great Society” speech.

Moynihan warned that a crisis was gathering in the black family, a crisis that threatened to thwart many from taking full advantage of the opportunities that were at last being opened in the new era of civil rights. He pointed to an emerging “tangle of pathologies” associated with this crisis: among them, in his telling, out of wedlock childbearing, female-headed families, welfare dependence, male joblessness.

All of these problems—and let’s be real, let’s call them problems—have become much more acute in black America since the Moynihan report was published almost 50 years ago. But they have also become much more acute for all the rest of America over the past half century as well. Indeed: America’s “Anglos”—non-Hispanic whites—now register a higher ratio of out-of-wedlock childbearing than did black Americans on the eve of the Moynihan report. By the same token the proportion of Anglo children in single parent homes, the proportion of Anglo males check out of the labor force altogether, and the proportion of Anglo homes applying for and accepting means-tested welfare benefits has risen almost relentlessly over these past decades.

From the vantage of the original “Moynihan report,” these subsequent Anglo developments would have been utterly unexpected. For that report hypothesized that the crisis of the black family in America was unique—a consequence of black America’s singular historical misfortunes. At the time, this was a plausible argument—and a persuasive one.

But how do we account today for the troubling fact that every ethnic group in our country reflects the very same pathologies that Moynihan once suggested were specific to the victims of slavery and long-standing racial discrimination? This is no trivial question. I cannot answer it in my little book—but coming to an answer is crucial to understanding much of what has gone wrong in our society since the Great Society began, and perhaps to revitalizing our society as well.

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