What’s become of the ‘Great Society’ after 50 years?: An AEIdeas symposium

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

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

May 22nd is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” address. AEI scholar Nicholas Eberstadt came out this week with a piece on the legacy of the Great Society titled “The ‘Great Society’ at 50.” Several experts respond to Eberstadt’s essay, writing on civil rights, welfare, health care, family structure, and much more.


Robert Doar: Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at AEI and former commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration

Nick Eberstadt has done a great job summarizing the successes and failures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Making civil rights a reality for black Americans and ending severe material deprivation — the sort of thing that could be called squalor back then — were two clear victories for our country. But the reduction of work by men, the rise of single parent families and the enormous growth of dependency among Americans of all classes and races are all negative outcomes which we will be struggling with for some time.

The reason for this split decision for the great society lies in the adoption by the poverty fighters of the language and arguments of the civil rights movement. Voting, access to public accommodations, and integrated and equally equipped schools — discrimination based on race — all of these are about fundamental American rights. Often they are questions decided by the courts and are determined by legal arguments.

Fighting poverty, helping people gain skills or get to work, and providing a growing economy so people can earn their own success — these are entirely different kinds of issues that are actually harmed if reduced to questions of rights and legal protections. But that is what happened in the late 60s and 70s, when poverty fighters made public assistance a right to be granted without questions asked and without any expectation of responsibility by the recipient.

It was not until the passage of welfare reform legislation in the 1990s that we finally began to see that we can’t always help people move up by granting them an entitlement. In fact, such largesse without some expectation of personal responsibility in return can often do more harm than good. It took a long time to learn that lesson (and I am not sure we have completely learned it), but keeping it in mind will help us win the next war on poverty.


Ron Haskins: Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution and a former White House advisor on welfare issues

Nicholas Eberstadt’s essay on the long-term impacts of President Johnson’s Great Society is a masterful overview of its civil rights and anti-poverty goals, achievements, and failures. But I don’t agree with his charge, commonplace among conservatives, that the flight from work and the rise of welfare dependency that have occurred since the beginning of the Great Society are a necessary outcome of the proliferation of programs and the explosion of federal and state spending that followed.

Conservatives can and should find ways to modify the rules of welfare receipt to reduce dependency. The fascinating case of the 1996 welfare reform legislation shows one way to use welfare spending to encourage work and reduce dependency. Republicans in Congress, the governors, and President Clinton imposed the strongest work requirements ever imposed on welfare recipients. Now mothers who don’t work or look for work have their welfare cash benefit reduced or eliminated. In addition, receipt of cash welfare is limited to 5 years for most recipients. But in addition to tough requirements, welfare reform capitalizes on government benefits – including wage supplements, child care, and Medicaid – that supplemented the modest earnings of these mothers.

The result of the push of work requirements backed by sanctions and the pull of additional government benefits produced a huge increase in work by single mothers and the biggest reduction in child poverty since the onset of the Great Society. Today, work rates among single mothers are still higher and poverty among their children is still lower than before welfare reform, despite the job-killing recession of 2007-2009.

At least some Republicans wanted single working mothers to receive this package of cash and in-kind benefits if they continued to work. Here’s why. There are 4 million families headed by single mothers who work and yet fall below 200% of poverty. Many of these mothers have earnings of less than $10,000. Without government earnings supplements, many of the children in these families would live in deep poverty. The combination of earnings and benefits, however, provides strong work incentive and enables the mothers to provide a much improved material existence for themselves and their children. Given the difficulty of earning high wages with minimum education (about half these mothers have a high school education or less), the nation will continue to have millions of children living in single mother, disadvantaged families for the foreseeable future.

Here’s the stark choice for public policy in these cases: ignore the poverty of millions of disadvantaged mothers and children, provide government welfare and leave the families somewhat better off but still in poverty, or demand work, even at low wages, and supplement the family’s income with work support benefits as we currently do, thereby helping the families combine earnings and benefits to greatly improve their financial security. Welfare reform was a vote for combined work and benefits and should be expanded. Work for benefits is the key to transforming Great Society poverty programs.


Aparna Mathur: Resident scholar at AEI

Nick Eberstadt’s excellent piece on the Great Society’s role in shaping modern America ends on the rather pessimistic note that America’s domestic antipoverty policies have been a tragic failure. This is captured by the observation that dependence on the government is more widespread than at any time in history. While material standards of living have undoubtedly improved, there are still millions of people in poverty today. Male joblessness is high, and traditional family structures have given way to single parent families which tend to be less stable.

These are recurring themes in some of the work that I have authored or co-authored with my colleagues. Kevin Hassett and I have documented the changes in material standards of living since the 1980s for people at the bottom of the income ladder. We find tremendous improvement in access to many modern amenities for low-income households, which may be partly driven by the generosity of welfare programs. Of course, as Nick argues, this does not mean that the poor are well to do. But it does appear to corroborate the idea that “consumption-poverty” is a lot lower than poverty measured using income.

I would also argue that for all the failures that exist in current anti-poverty programs, there are many successes as well. And if we build on the successes, there is a path forward to tackle the important issues, particularly those of joblessness and single parent families. In a recent report that I co-authored with Abby McCloskey, we argue that to address the issue of joblessness, we should expand programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit that have been studied extensively and have been shown to encourage participation in the work-force, particularly by single mothers who currently benefit the most from the program.

If the EITC were extended to childless adults, this would help less-educated young men as well as noncustodial fathers enter the labor force and increase their participation as well. The EITC lifted 5.4 million people out of poverty in 2010, as per the Census Bureau. To tackle the issue of single mothers and their high rates of poverty, we need to reform the provision of child care subsidies particularly the way it exists in the tax code. Research suggests that increased child-care subsidies for low-income households significantly increase the probability that current and former welfare recipients work. The current child care tax credit pays out at levels that are well below actual costs of child care. Reforming the credit by expanding it and making it refundable could help low-income families significantly.

In general, I believe that there are areas of opportunity even in the current byzantine maze of antipoverty programs that could work towards reducing dependence and improving economic outcomes for people in poverty.


Joseph Antos: Wilson H. Taylor Scholar in Health Care and Retirement Policy at AEI and former assistant director for health and human resources at the Congressional Budget Office

Fourteen months after his “Great Society” address, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed Medicare into law. In his remarks on July 30, 1965, President Johnson laid out the promise of the new program.

No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years.

Neither the president nor the country could anticipate the tectonic shift in health care that would result from that act.

The past 50 years have seen a massive explosion of medical innovation, in no small part due to the creation of the Medicare program. Technological advances and improved medical practice have given us the ability to more accurately diagnose disease and more effectively treat it. That progress comes at a price. Since 1965, US health spending has increased nearly ten-fold in constant dollar terms and now accounts for 18% of our economy.

Medicare changed the business of medicine by guaranteeing that doctors and hospitals would be paid to care for the elderly. Overnight, a new market was created with tens of millions of customers who were no longer limited by a budget. Medical providers and innovators responded quickly with new tools and new treatments. Between 1965 and 1970, Medicare was responsible for a 37% increase in hospital spending.

The program has become a victim of its own success. Seniors have grown to expect unlimited access to the best care provided by the best, or at least the most expensive, doctors and hospitals. Politicians decry the rising cost of the program, but dare not make major changes in Medicare for fear of losing votes. This is middle class welfare, and it is far more difficult to deal with than programs for the poor.

The baby boomers should not assume that Medicare will be able to offer the same guarantees that their parents received. They should accept the reality of limited resources and take the difficult actions necessary to reform the program. If they don’t, their children will.


Michael Tomasky: Editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

I applaud Nick Eberstadt’s frank words about Barry Goldwater, conservatism, and race. That second paragraph he quotes from Goldwater is, to my way of thinking, just devastating to conservatism and to states’ rights-ers (it was being handled by “the people directly concerned”; that was the exact problem). It did take, as Eberstadt recognizes, a massive national effort led by the federal government to end legal discrimination. It was the only way. It’s great to see a conservative acknowledge this. I wish more who hold elected office would.

I also was very interested to read the section on what poverty meant in 1964 and what it means today. There is no question: poverty still sucks, but it sucks a lot less than it used to. Even poor people have a little more disposable income than the poor people of the 1960s, and they certainly have a lot more stuff. This happened, I believe, partly through government interventions and partly (mostly, I suppose) through the working of the market—innovation and so forth. But it’s a point liberals should probably recognize a little more than they do. Rhetoric that fails to acknowledge this different reality probably sounds dated to a lot of middle-class Americans.

Where I have some questions and disagreements, unsurprisingly, is over Eberstadt’s discussion of why so many men have checked out of the workforce. I don’t believe he quite wrestles this problem to the ground empirically, I suppose in part because it’s axiomatic to him (and conservatives in general) that it’s the welfare state that has sapped these men of their initiative and drive. Having been offered handout after handout, they’re just sitting around cashing checks, drinking 40’s or watching “The Price Is Right.”

I’m not so sure. Deindustrialization doesn’t figure much in Eberstadt’s analysis, but surely it’s a major factor here. The disappearance of manufacturing jobs leaves many less-educated men with fewer and fewer job options. This is more severe, obviously, in inner-city areas, where the problem of male unemployment is sharper. William Julius Wilson wrote beautifully back in the 1980s about the South Side of Chicago he was born into in the 1930s and the South Side of the 1980s, a desiccated shell of a once-vibrant community that had a (segregated) professional class and even a manufacturing base. I don’t think Lyndon Johnson did that.

Similarly I wondered while I was reading the essay about the data on a matter that Eberstadt only gestures toward, which is how many men aren’t working because their women are. In low-wage areas, service jobs predominate, and women predominate in those job categories. Has this situation been extensively researched?

In sum, and predictably enough, I believe the Great Society did far more good than bad. I still recommend to people the essay Joe Califano wrote for The Washington Monthly back in 1999. Medicare, federal funding for schools for the first time, college loans. These are not failures by a long shot. There were some failures, and some promises made that were unrealistic; and of course there was a big war that derailed everything. But if the fundamental question is whether the nation is richer or poorer for the Great Society, the answer is obviously richer.


W. Bradford Wilcox: Visiting scholar at AEI, associate professor at the University of Virginia, and director of the National Marriage Project

The Great Society was launched by President Lyndon Johnson to strengthen the American Dream. But when it comes to two fundamental American values—work and family—Nicholas Eberstadt’s important essay shows us that the programs associated with the Great Society have failed to deliver, at least judging by the trends—manifest declines in male labor force participation and marriage in the United States—that have followed in the wake of these programs.

But we do not know if these programs simply coincided with the declines in marriage and work or caused those declines. When it comes to marriage, we do not know how much, if any, blame for the dramatic increase in the nation’s nonmarital childbearing—from 7% in 1964 to 41% today—can be apportioned to public welfare programs that have made it easier for poor, single-mothers to support themselves and their children. Conservatives, of course, tend to blame these programs for the breakdown of the family. Progressives, by contrast, tend to blame economic forces—such as declines in American manufacturing—that have also coincided with the retreat from marriage. But it’s also possible that dramatic changes in American popular culture may have had a hand in these trends; after all, new research on family change in Brazil suggests that popular culture—especially the introduction of telenovelas—played an important role in the dramatic changes that swept poor and working class families in Brazil since the 1970s. Similar cultural dynamics may have been in play in the United States.

Regardless, however, of the origins of our contemporary retreat from marriage, what cannot be disputed, as Eberstadt notes, is that “the new American welfare state facilitated these new American trends by helping to finance them: by providing support for… for single women with children who would not be able to maintain independent households without government aid.” My worry, in particular, is that many of our means-tested policies targeting low-income families end up privileging single parenthood, insofar as benefits are reduced or eliminated when another earner is brought into the household. The challenge, then, facing scholars and policymakers is determining if there are new ways to help poor families without locking them into a cycle of family instability and single parenthood.

Moving forward, the paramount rule here for policymakers should be “First, Do No Harm,” that is, do not support policies that penalize or otherwise undercut marriage. This rule should be a starting point for reform conservative efforts to strengthen family life, given the central role that marriage has played and continues to play in helping men, women, and children realize the American Dream.


Thomas Miller: Resident fellow at AEI and a former senior health economist for the Joint Economic Committee

The policies and programs of the once-Greatly Arrogant Society still limp along across the political landscape, 50 years after their official launch. Nick Eberstadt chronicles their contradictory path in clear and crisp prose, but his largely consequentialist analysis leaves many questions unanswered, if not begged.

Is the presumed permanence of the expanding welfare state actually another Brezhnev doctrine awaiting its ultimate demise? Was a massively larger federal government role and its focus on group, versus individual, rights necessarily the only, or best, legal pathway to end race-based discrimination and injustice? Is our mounting toll of social pathologies due to causes much greater than levels of relative poverty or racial and ethnic disparities? Should we first start to reduce current government transfer payments to middle class voters, rather than define dependency even further upward?

Eberstadt’s short essay glosses over the substantial economic and social progress of the post-World War II/pre-1965 era, the rapid retreat from many of that generation’s Best and Brightest policy concepts as early as the late 1960s, and the ups and downs of subsequent decades. Most of all, it treats the Great Society’s tragedies as a mismatch between noble ends and ineffective means, rather than deeper problems with its self-perpetuating political ambitions.


Stan Veuger: Resident scholar at AEI

In The Great Society at 50, my esteemed colleague Nick Eberstadt offers a concise yet nuanced overview of the successes and failures of President Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda. It consists of two, or really three parts.

In the first part, Dr. Eberstadt explains the remarkable progress made on the civil rights front over the past 50 years, and recognizes that the conservative alternative to the Civil Rights Act and similar public policies was, in retrospect, laughable at best. Dr. Eberstadt is most certainly right that the progress made in eliminating legalized, often government-supported blatantly racist practices has been enormous. He is also right that there is room for even more improvement, as the law and the state alone can do only so much. For example, the voters of California passed Proposition 209, banning racial discrimination by state governmental institutions, almost 20 years ago, but admissions officers at universities like UCLA continue to discriminate against Asian-Americans even today. There certainly is a role for the government in attempting to eradicate these practices, but only evolving social mores can offer definite solutions.

The second and third part of Dr. Eberstadt’s essay focus on the War on Poverty. Regarding this “war” he reaches two conclusions. The first is that poverty of the kind that was wide-spread only half a century ago has disappeared almost entirely. This focus on real progress is important: some on the right too often denigrate the value of a safety net that takes care of the weakest among us. We know from past experience that private charity can help to alleviate their suffering, but not in the comprehensive manner that the state can.

On the flipside, and this is probably the reason why many of the programs that originated with the War on Poverty are unpopular among conservatives, we are nowhere near the point where removing the myriad of currently existing welfare programs would unveil a world without poverty. Given that that was the War’s original goal, judging it a failure by its own standard, as Dr. Eberstadt does, is certainly not unreasonable. What makes this failure tragic is that in the last 50 years, perhaps not coincidentally, we have witnessed the spread of unproductive choices and behaviors (males leaving the work force, dysfunctional families of all colors and creeds) that make one worry that yet another one of LBJ’s wars has turned into a quagmire.

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2 thoughts on “What’s become of the ‘Great Society’ after 50 years?: An AEIdeas symposium

  1. The so called “War on Drugs” is not a Reagan policy; it goes back to Wilson. LBJ instigated handouts to poor in such a manner that broke the paternal family. When father left home, kids began to grow up on the street – the blacktop jungle.
    What is true is that drugs cause untold damage to society and no one has a suitable answer to the problem.

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