On this date in 1964, a nearly $1 billion (about $5 billion in current dollars) anti-poverty measure, the Economic Opportunity Act, which created Head Start, VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), and other programs that became part of the “War on Poverty,” was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
When John Gardner became the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, he was joining Pres. Johnson not just as a cabinet member, but as the engineer of LBJ’s ambitious agenda of social reform known as the “Great Society.”
Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, drafted the legislation and became director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, which implemented the new law.
In the wake of Pres. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, a wave of sympathy and public support enabled LBJ to pass a number of Kennedy Administration proposals, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Building on this momentum, Johnson introduced his own vision for America – “the Great Society” – in which America ended poverty, promoted equality, improved education, rejuvenated cities, and protected the environment. This became the blueprint for the most far-reaching agenda of domestic legislation since the New Deal – legislation that has had a profound effect on American society.
Perhaps driven by his own humble beginnings, Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” as central to building the Great Society. In 1960, despite overall prosperity, almost one-quarter of all American families were living below the poverty line. Communities of color, as well as entire regions of the country, like central Appalachia, were bypassed by the economic growth of the postwar years. Technological advances in industry were also changing job requirements for American workers. Good-paying, unionized, and even unskilled jobs of the past were disappearing, and those without education and skills were being left behind.
The first piece of Great Society legislation, the Economic Opportunity Act, tried to give people tools to get out of poverty. The bill created a Job Corps similar to the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps; a domestic peace corps; a system for vocational training; and Head Start, a pre-school program designed to prepare children for success in public school. The bill also funded community action programs and extended loans to small businessmen and farmers.
Johnson’s landslide re-election victory over conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 added to the momentum of Great Society reforms. Over the next four years, Johnson enacted a flurry of legislation. One of the most ambitious efforts was the 1965 establishment of Medicare to provide health care for America’s senior citizens.
In 1964, 44 percent of seniors had no health care coverage, and with the medical bills that come with older age, this propelled many seniors into poverty. In fact, more than one in three Americans over 65 were living below the poverty line – more than double the rate of those under 65. Medicare was an important and big change in American health care – it was called the “biggest management job since the invasion of Normandy” – and it was up to John Gardner to make it work. He helped shepherd Medicare to reality, and the results have been extraordinary: Virtually all seniors now have health care, and the poverty rate for the elderly has fallen to approximately one in ten, a rate lower than that of the general population. Along with Medicare, the Johnson Administration established the Medicaid program to provide health care to the poor.
Education reform was also an important part of LBJ’s Great Society, and a particular passion of Gardner’s. In 1964, 8 million American adults had not finished 5 years in school; more than 20 million had not finished eight years; and almost a quarter of the nation’s population, around 54 million people, hadn’t finished high school. In 1965, Congress passed the groundbreaking Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which for the first time provided federal funding for education below the college level. The Higher Education Act created a National Teachers Corps and provided financial assistance to students wishing to attend college.
Urban renewal and conservation was the third major component of the Great Society. Ever since the end of World War II, cities faced a shortage of good, affordable housing. At the same time, the suburbanization of America along with the changing economy meant that many businesses began to leave city centers, an exodus that was accelerated after the Watts uprising in 1965 in Los Angeles, and continued throughout Johnson’s term. As part of his administration’s response, Johnson signed the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 that established the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and expanded funding for public housing. In addition, he provided aid to cities to rebuild blighted areas.
Johnson’s ambitions for a Great Society were thwarted by his ambitions in Vietnam. The cost of the war in Vietnam, along with the costs of his domestic programs, strained the economy and overshadowed his reputation. Moreover, as the war became more and more unpopular, Johnson lost the political capital needed to continue these reforms. He did not have the stomach to run for office again in 1968.
Critics of the Great Society charged that these programs just created bureaucracies and threw money at problems without producing results. Conservatives naturally rejected the notion that the federal government should be undertaking these tasks at all. People on the left saw the immediate value of Great Society programs, and the progress they promised, while also questioning whether such advances could be fully integrated into our especially rapacious form of capitalism in the U.S. Another president could easily come along and undermine much of LBJ’s agenda. That is indeed what happened with many Great Society programs.
Nevertheless, the impact of the Great Society in many areas is undisputed, and the vision endures, earning LBJ the reputation among historians of being one of America’s great presidents, despite Vietnam. The nation today still wrestles with poverty, health care, housing, homelessness, education, the environment, unemployment, war, inequality, immigration reform and many other issues.
Adapted from Peace History Index, PBS, and other sources.