Introduction to the Great Society
Introduction to the Great Society
Upon his inauguration in 1961, United States President John F. Kennedy proposed a slate of social programs. Kennedy's New Frontier programs—including proposals for Medicare and social security benefits— stalled in Congress. After the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson, formerly Vice-President in the Kennedy administration, sought to reinvigorate interest in Kennedy's social policy agenda. Utilizing an atmosphere of heightened government cooperation in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Johnson proposed sweeping social reforms in housing, civil rights, education, and healthcare.
On May 22, 1964, President Johnson gave the commencement address at the University of Michigan. In his speech, Johnson introduced his domestic policy agenda. He dubbed the proposed reforms the Great Society. Johnson declared that he would seek the advice of the nation's experts to implement comprehensive social reforms in housing, education, healthcare, and the environment. The elimination of racial injustice was another key element of the social reform plan.
Johnson's Great Society invoked the tradition of the New Frontier and the New Deal. However, unlike the New Deal, which was proposed to relieve the Great Depression, the Great Society was proposed at a time of great economic prosperity. Johnson invoked this prosperity when introducing one of the main components of the Great Society, the so-called War on Poverty. Johnson actually proclaimed a "war on poverty" during his 1964 State of the Union address five months before introducing the Great Society. Johnson's War on Poverty was twofold: eliminating factors that increased the gap between rich and poor and providing relief for individuals living in poverty.
The era of the Great Society was also a time of social conflict. The civil rights movement was at its peak. Great Society reforms, such as the Civil Rights Act, codified the demands of the civil rights movement. As U.S. involvement in Vietnam increased, Johnson claimed that Americans should invest in both "guns and butter," funding the war in Vietnam while also continuing Great Society reforms. However, many programs were scaled back or dismantled by succeeding administrations.
The editors here extend discussion of the Great Society to cover the period from 1964 to 1981. Key parts of the Great Society discussed in this chapter, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Robert T. Stafford Student Loan Program, have stood the test of time. Other programs, such as Medicare, are routinely reformed. In 1981, the first federal budget of President Ronald Reagan scaled-back or curtailed several Great Society programs. Proponents of the Reagan reforms asserted that many Great Society programs exacerbated the social ills they were conceived to reduce. The new conservatives of the 1980s claimed that Great Society programs, especially welfare and housing projects, increased recipient reliance on government benefits. Others contended that the Great Society was fiscally irresponsible and too greatly expanded the size and role of the federal government—the same criticisms once levied by opponents of the New Deal. These controversial assertions are presented in the article on Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980.