for Discussion: Did the liberal
government programs of the 1960s solve or
exacerbate social and economic problems?
Reading: Gerster, pp. 185-189; Johnson
Society" (web); Johnson "War
on Poverty" (web);
Kennedy Inaugural Address (web)
Making Sense of the Sixties: We can
Change the World
President Johnson and the
1. John Kennedy and 1960s
2. President Johnson
and the Great Society
3. Myths about Welfare
4. Poverty in America
1. What is the larger vision of the
future that President Kennedy offers Americans in his Inaugural
2. What does Kennedy believe are individual
Americans' responsibilities to their larger society?
3. Why were Americans so excited about
Kennedy's Inaugural address?
4. What are the central elements of
President Johnson's Great Society?
5. Why does Johnson believe that Americans
can create this Great Society?
6. Do you think, as President Kennedy
and Johnson do, that individual Americans have a larger responsibility
to help American society create this Great Society?
7. What accounts for the optimism and
idealism of both President Kennedy and Johnson? Why did they believe
that America could achieve this Great Society?
8. Would Americans today support a
to create a Great Society in the late 1990s?
Since the 1970s conservatives have
charged that the "liberal social programs" of the 1960s
have damaged America. They argue that the rising poverty, drug abuse,
violence, crime, collapse of the family, teenage pregnancy are all
caused by these 1960s government programs and the "welfare
state" they created. In fact, in 1992 after the Los Angeles
riots, President George Bush and some of his top aides charged that
the riots were caused by the social programs of the 1960s. Of course
these conservative attacks against these social programs have not
gone unanswered. Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s America has
witnessed an increasingly heated debate about "big government"
and "social welfare." Did the very social program created
by the "Great Society" and the "War on Poverty"
actually create poverty and undermine the very society that government
was trying to help?
In order to understand this debate
about the social programs created in the 1960s, we need to look
at some of the basic economic and social statistics that describe
the larger truth about welfare and government programs. Conservatives
have charged that social welfare has caused families to breakdown,
single women to have more children, murder and violence in poor
communities, and poor men to face murder and death. But let's look
at some of the actual statistics to see if this is in fact true.
( See WELFARE
MYTHS and Welfare
Myths and Facts websites) Clearly, by looking at the data, we
can see that much of the claims and charges conservatives make about
social welfare programs are myths; the data does not support them.
Why then do they continue to make these unfounded claims when the
data and evidence do not support them? What biases or assumptions
do conservatives what to protect by attacking these government programs?
In order to understand this debate
about the social programs created by the 1960s, we need to understand
the larger goals of those who created and supported them. We can
see the larger vision of what President Johnson called "the
Great Society" in his 1964 speech describing his vision of
America as the great society. Following the optimism and idealism
of the 1950s, many Americans in the early 1960s believed that American
government and society worked and could work even better. Even when
Americans looked at their society in the early 1960s and did not
see the ideal society described by the "liberal consensus,"
they believed that with a little work and effort America could live
up to its dreams and become the ideal society it believed it was.
Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s challenged Americans
to take this idealism and optimism and use it to help create a better,
more just, more free, and abundant society. In fact, one of the
major sources of 1960s social and political activism comes from
the idealism and optimism encouraged by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
In his 1964 speech, President Johnson
described his vision of "the Great Society":
"The Great Society rests on abundance
and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,
to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just
Johnson now lays out a larger vision
of an ideal America that he challenges Americans to help him create.
He argues that America is too wealthy a nation, too great a nation,
too just a nation to accept the poverty and social injustice that
exists in the United States. Johnson believes we have the will,
the resources, and the compassion to create a better society, a
society free of injustice, poverty, racism, and despair. Johnson
argues that America can clean up its cities, it countryside and
environment; America can provide all Americans with a quality education
and the chance to attend college; America can provide jobs and hope
and opportunity to all Americans; and America can end the scourge
of poverty among the elderly, the young, and the very poor. Johnson
concludes that "we have the power to shape the civilization
that we want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if
we are to build that kind of society." For Johnson and many
Americans in the 1960s, our wealth and success made it impossible
for the United States to accept and tolerate these social problems.
We could create a better, more just, abundant society for all Americans.
But this social and political idealism
would cost billions of dollars and greatly expand the scope and
power of the federal government. Conservatives charged that the
tax burden created by these expanded government programs would damage
the economy. Moreover, the growing power of the government to interfere
with American society and individuals' lives threatened our freedom
and liberty. Conservatives argued that government was not responsible
for improving society. If there were social and economic problems,
it was up to business, the economy, and the goodworks and charity
of individuals to address these problems. Government, they argued,
could not solve these problems, but government meddling could make
them worse and actually undermine the wealth, abundance, and freedom
that Americans' hard work and effort had already created.
Let's look for a moment at some of
the social programs created in the 1960s. We need to understand
the full range and scope of these programs in order to evaluate
the conservatives' charges that they have caused more problems then
they have solved. What are all these programs that supposedly have
caused the downfall of the American society and economy?
Many of the most successful social
programs of the 1960s were created to help the elderly and end the
massive poverty and suffering that many Americans faced in their
old age. In the 1960s, the government expanded the amount of Social
Security money that would go to the poorest Americans. Now, despite
their low life-time earnings, senior citizens were guaranteed a
basic income that would support them in their retirement. In addition
to increasing Social Security payments, the government created Medicare,
which provides health insurance and medical care for the elderly.
Increased income and medical care, helped bring many of the elderly
out of poverty in the 1960s. In addition to Social Security and
Medicare, the government created Medicaid, which provides medical
care the the very poor. But, in fact, since the 1980s, the chief
recipient of Medicaid monies is the elderly, who rely on Medicaid
to pay for their very expensive nursing home stays when the rest
of the their savings is depleted and they now qualify for Medicaid
support. The most expensive and most popular of the social programs
of the 1960s were Social Security increases, Medicare, and Medicaid.
In the 1960s, the federal government
greatly expanded its support for public education. Since the 1960s,
the government has been helping to pay for primary and secondary
education. In addition, the federal government created student loan
programs, work study programs, and college grants to help more Americans
go to college. With this government support for education, more
Americans were able to get a good education and go on to graduate
In the 1960s, the federal government
became committed to preserving and protecting the environment. The
government passed laws to protect the air, water, soil, and larger
environment from pollution and destruction. The government also
passed the 1964 Wilderness Act which preserved millions of acres
of government land for recreation and national parks. As a result
of these environmental protections since the 1960s, Americans have
enjoyed cleaner air, cleaner water, and a healthier and cleaner
The federal government also became
committed to urban renewal and helping America clean-up its decaying
industrial cities. The government began providing billions of dollars
to support mass transit and commuting to reduce urban smog and congestion.
In addition, the government began providing millions of dollars
for public housing to help the poor rise out of poverty by subsidizing
the rising housing costs in America's industrial cities.
The federal government also expanded
its welfare programs for the poor. It increased payments for poor
families, increased food stamp programs, and increased government
support for children and families. As a result of these programs,
the poverty level among poor women and children began to decline
in the 1960s and 1970s. However, with increasing cuts in these programs
in the 1980s and 1990s, the poverty level for children has risen
to 25 percent.
Conservatives like Charles Murray use
the welfare programs as their central example of the social programs
of the 1960s. They zero in on these programs and argue that because
they have not ended poverty and dependency that they are proof that
the government social programs of the 1960s were failures, causing
more harm than good. In his essay, "The legacy of the 1960s,"
Murray argues that because government welfare programs and 1960s
social programs have created poverty, crime, violence, and the breakdown
of the families that they should be ended. He concludes that only
by ending these programs and once again making people dependent
on their own hard work and effort will they learn how to be responsible
and will they emerge from the poverty, despair, and violence created
by their dependence on government. But should we use these welfare
programs for the poor as our central measuring stick for the success
or failure of the social programs of the 1960s?
One of the most important questions
to ask about Murray's argument is this: Isn't there a great deal
of irony in arguing that the very programs created to end poverty
and suffering are in fact the larger cause of this poverty and suffering?
If these social programs are the cause of poverty, what caused the
widespread poverty and suffering that many Americans faced in the
1950s before these social programs were created? Can we blame government
programs as the larger cause of poverty when clearly poverty and
suffering existed before they were created? Is it possible that
the same causes of poverty and suffering that led to the creation
of the social programs of the 1960s have made them worse despite
these programs? Are there other national and global economic and
social factors that are causing this increased poverty and suffering
that Murray and other conservatives blame on government social programs?
Beginning in the early 1980s, many
conservatives began trying to cut these social programs, arguing
that they were simply welfare programs that caused poverty and dependency
on the government for handouts. However, when they tried to cut
Social Security and Medicare payments to the elderly, Americans
rose up in arms refusing to allow these cuts, arguing that they
were essential and vital programs, not welfare. The same thing happened
in the mid-1980s when conservatives tried to cut government support
for education and student loans and grants. Both student groups
and working-class and middle-class families argued that government
support for education was essential, not simply a welfare handout
and give-away. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when conservatives
tried to cut government protection for the environment and pollution
laws, the vast majority of Americans rose up and declared that protecting
the environment was in the vital interest of the nation and all
Americans, not just big government run amuck.
Despite the conservative arguments
that the social programs of the 1960s have damaged the American
society and economy, the majority of Americans still support them.
However, the social programs directed at helping poor families and
women and children have been cut in the 1980s and 1990s. These cuts
have caused the increasing "feminization of poverty" and
widespread hunger and poverty among children. Failing to cut and
rollback the politically most popular social programs of the 1960s,
the conservatives have focused on the weakest groups in America,
the very poor and women and children, and tried to cut government
support for them. But they have learned that, despite their disdain
for these social programs, conservatives cannot cut Social Security,
Medicaid, Medicare, support for education, and environmental protection
without being threatened with public outrage. So conservatives like
Murray continue to argue that the social programs of the 1960s have
caused more harm than good but they only focus on the government
programs for the very poorest Americans. They know that the majority
of Americans will rise up and depend the other social programs because
they depend on them for their quality of life and economic and social
To the extent that Americans believe
in and depend on these government social programs created in the
1960s we are forced to conclude that they have been successful.
They may have not succeeded in creating the "Great Society"
but they have improved the quality of life for the majority of Americans.
If the Great Society and government social programs of the 1960s
did not cause poverty and suffering, what then are the causes of
the growing poverty, suffering, violence, and despair in American
society? If the government isn't responsible, who is? This is the
larger question that conservatives like Charles Murray fail to address.