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LBJ's Great Society

IN remembrances this month of the 10 years since American forces quit Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson's administration comes under often bitter fire. But there was another side of the Johnson era -- the tremendous burst of legislation that became known as the Great Society programs -- which also merits commentary. This week, scholars and former public officials have been gathered at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, to critique that administration's domestic achievements.

Their appraisal, in today's terms, is that the domestic legislation of the Johnson era has become a firmly accepted part of the American society's foundation planting. Rent supplements and medicaid for the poor; scholarships and loans for college students; the voting rights act for minorities, which opened the way for more blacks to hold elected office; medicare, which provides health insurance for the elderly, financed by payroll taxes; highway beautification; rural assistance for Appalachia -- dozens of separate pieces of legislation were signed by Lyndon Johnson at a moment almost unique in Washington history, when the President's party had a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. Only in the 1930s, with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, was there such a composite approach to domestic activism and so decisive a legislative majority for the White House.

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Whereas Roosevelt's New Deal intended to provide the minimum for living with some dignity, the idea of the Great Society was to raise the threshold to a higher level and to widen the inclusion to embrace the elderly, the poor, minorities, the disabled. The goal of having enough to eat, for example, became one of providing good nutrition. That the Great Society was in many regards oversold -- the effects of racism did not entirely end, and great numbers are still poor, unemployed, and disadvantaged -- is clear today. We tend to forget the social unrest of those days, the urban riots that turned mile after mile of once-great cities into wastelands, the civil rights protests, which made claims for action during a period of general economic prosperity.

Many Americans for some time have felt that the socioeconomic legislation, from the '60s back to the '30s, had become overgrown. They still accepted it as part of the American society's foundation planting. They did not want it ripped out by the roots. But they felt it needed some pruning, some cutting back, some airing, as must be done with any permanent planting.

This general public acceptance of the structure of social-program spending has made it difficult for the Reagan administration to mount its political counterrevolution, to more than trim back such spending around the edges, or to slow the rate of its growth but not the growth itself.

The emphasis by the Reagan team from the start has been to preserve what it calls the ``safety net'' -- that is, to keep programs at a minimal level to avoid obvious suffering, while expecting the able to care for themselves in nutrition, health care, education, or whatever.

Early on, the economics of the Great Society programs was not uppermost in Washington's thinking. Perhaps ironically, the big early increases in Great Society spending came after Mr. Johnson left the scene, during the Nixon and Ford administrations. The Great Society was a major social legislative experiment which Washington, with wide public support, invested in.

Today Washington is more absorbed with the federal government's tenacious deficits than with any sense of unfinished legislative business. No renewed legislative burst is on the horizon. Mr. Reagan's fiscal wizards like David Stockman find the deficits useful in their attempts to cut back on the programs' overgrowth. But the basic structure of LBJ's social assistance seems secure.

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