Equal Opportunity Act

views updated


In the shadow of the Great Depression (19291939), the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945) expressed a new, broader vision of the social contract between the people and the government: from now on, the national governments of industrial societies were responsible for assuring the welfare of citizens unable to provide for themselves. This definition of the welfare state was largely put into practice in Western Europe after the war. But even as early as the later 1930s, this confident vision of the welfare state had begun to run aground on a politically conservative Congress and Supreme Court intent on dismantling the New Deal safety net. Given the national priority of fighting the World War II (19391945), social activism lost the compelling momentum that it had exhibited in the 1930s. But reform was not dead. Even as the patriotic consensus of World War II was followed by the repressive anticommunist consensus of the early Cold War, the New Deal coalition of Democrats, organized labor, ethnic and racial minorities forged in the 1930s stayed in touch and waited for the opportunity to put forward its agenda.

The rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s appeared to signal this opportunity. Though not the full-throated liberal that his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, was, newly elected President John F. Kennedy (19611963) embraced the ideals of social justice as he proposed education, health, and civil rights reforms. In the tradition of the New Deal, Kennedy tried to outline this program, which he called the "New Frontier." However, given his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 election plus the non-cooperation from Congress, Kennedy was cautious in what he proposed. In 1963, Kennedy began to focus on poverty, requesting his Council on Economic Advisors to develop proposals for legislation for 1964. The president's assassination in November 1963 cut short his leadership in social reform, but he succeeded in raising public awareness of pressing social issues and stimulated greater political activism.

Kennedy's successor and vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson (19631969), grew up in the hills of central Texas. His family was not poverty stricken, but he had seen plenty of poverty when, as a young man, he bummed around and took jobs on highway crews and as a teacher in a largely Mexican-American school.

In contrast to Kennedy, Johnson knew how to get what he wanted from Congress. He could intimidate as well as flatter. He had been a leader in both houses of Congress. Johnson began by defining Kennedy's political testament in such a way that helped move legislation through Congress. Taking advantage of national sympathies over Kennedy's sudden death as well as the rise of non-violent leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson shepherded a series of social reform measures through Congress, including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Continuing the study of the poverty problem begun by Kennedy, in his State of Union address to the nation in January of 1964 Johnson declared war on poverty. He proposed a comprehensive domestic agenda.

A few months later Johnson began referring to the need to build America's "Great Society." The time appeared right to pursue domestic policies. In spite of the widening war in Vietnam, the public still backed Johnson, perhaps because the economy was booming.

By August 1964 Johnson signed the Equal Opportunity Act (EOA) into law, the legislative vehicle for his war on poverty. Rather than directly providing money and jobs perpetuating welfare dependency, the focus was on helping individuals develop skills through education, job training, and community development, to break out of the cycle of poverty permanently. The act established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer a variety of antipoverty programs. The programs included Head Start for preschool children, the Job Corps providing vocational training to high school dropouts, Upward Bound assisting poor high school students entering college, work-study programs for college students, job-training for adults, grant and loan programs to farmers and businesses willing to hire the previously unemployed, and a domestic volunteer program patterned after Peace Corps called Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). A central feature of EOA was creation of community action programs (CAP) that politically empowered residents of poor neighborhoods to create and implement specific programs tailored to their community's needs. But CAPs proved of limited effectiveness. Unforeseen conflicts arose with established local political regimes and traditional social service organizations who saw grassroots empowerment as a threat to their turf.

Other related legislation passed in 1964 included the food stamp program, a program providing free legal counsel for indigents, and programs for urban renewal and mass transit to revitalize inner cities. In the fall of 1964, Johnson won the presidential election with over 60 percent of the popular vote. The landslide victory significantly changed the political complexion of Congress establishing Democratic control in both houses. With the Democrats in control, Congress proceeded to pass almost one hundred bills in 1965 and 1966 building an extensive social reform program. Added was health insurance for the aged, health care for the poor, voting rights for minorities, funding for education programs, and environmental protection. The federal government had become a key player in promoting the quality of life in the United States.

This socially progressive agenda came to a quick end, however, as the Vietnam War escalated. Funding demands of the war and public disillusionment with urban riots between 1965 and 1967 led to funding declines for OEO and other social programs. OEO's budget fell from $4 billion in 1966 to less than $2 billion in 1967. The war on poverty made only modest gains.

Major political changes followed Johnson's presidency with conservative Republican control of the White House or Congress through most of the remainder of the twentieth century. Crime-fighting measures gained priority as white middle and upper class opposition to expensive welfare programs, extensive federal regulation, and affirmative action began to threaten those who viewed the programs as altering the terms of a "zero-sum-game." However, the Johnson domestic agenda, driven by social activism at its height in the 20th century, made a lasting mark on U.S. society as many of the individual programs of OEO continued, though often scaled back from original forms.

See also: Civil Rights Movement, Great Society, New Frontier


Andrew, John A. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1998.

Bernstein, Irving. Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy's New Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Bornet, Vaughn D. The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1983.

Langston, Thomas S. Ideologues and Presidents: From the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Patterson, James T. America's Struggle Against Poverty, 19001994. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Simon, Barbara L. The Empowerment Tradition in American Social Work: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.