Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion: Did the liberal
government programs of the 1960s solve or
exacerbate social and economic problems?

Reading: Gerster, pp. 185-189; Johnson "The Great
Society" (web)
; Johnson "War on Poverty" (web);
Kennedy Inaugural Address (web)

Video: Making Sense of the Sixties: We can
Change the World

Daily Class Web Links

President Johnson and the Great

Daily Class Outline

1. John Kennedy and 1960s Idealism

2. President Johnson and the Great Society

3. Myths about Welfare

4. Poverty in America

Daily Class Questions

1. What is the larger vision of the future that President Kennedy offers Americans in his Inaugural Address?

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 President's call
to create a Great Society in the late 1990s?

Daily Class Notes

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 the beginning."

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 from college.

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 environment.

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 success.

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.

© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 12 Nov. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/johnson.htm
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