The Great Society was an ambitious series of policy initiatives, legislation and programs spearheaded by President Lyndon B. Johnson with the main goals of ending poverty, reducing crime, abolishing inequality and improving the environment. In May 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson laid out his agenda for a “Great Society” during a speech at the University of Michigan. With his eye on re-election that year, Johnson set in motion his Great Society, the largest social reform plan in modern history.
Riding A Wave of Empathy
The assassination of Kennedy left American citizens reeling. They felt empathy, even sympathy for Johnson as he became president under such difficult circumstances. Johnson took advantage of this support to push through key elements of Kennedy’s legislative agenda—in particular, civil rights legislation and tax cuts.
By the time he became President, Johnson wasn’t a green politician nor a pushover. After serving stints in the U.S. House of Representative and the U.S. Senate—where he was the youngest Senate minority leader and then Senate majority leader—he’d earned a reputation as a powerful leader who knew how to get things done.
He became Kennedy’s running mate in 1960 and was sworn in as Vice President of the United States in January 1961. By the time Kennedy was killed, the public knew Johnson could get things done and was prepared to back him.
War On Poverty
In March 1964, Johnson introduced the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Economic Opportunity Act during a special message to Congress. He’d hoped to help the underprivileged break the poverty cycle by helping them develop job skills, further their education and find work.
To do this, he created a Job Corps for 100,000 disadvantaged men. Half would work on conservation projects and the other half would receive education and skills training in special job training centers.
In addition, Johnson tasked state and local governments with creating work training programs for up to 200,000 men and women. A national work study program was also established to offer 140,000 Americans the chance to go to college who could otherwise not afford it.
Other initiatives the so-called War on Poverty offered were:
- a Community Action program for people to tackle poverty within their own communities
- the ability for the government to recruit and train skilled American volunteers to serve poverty-stricken communities
- loans and guarantees for employers who offered jobs to the unemployed
- funds for farmers to purchase land and establish agricultural co-ops
- help for unemployed parents preparing to enter the workforce
Johnson knew battling poverty wouldn’t be easy. Still, he said, “…this program will show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens. It will provide a lever with which we can begin to open the door to our prosperity for those who have been kept outside.”
Many Great Society programs fell under the War on Poverty umbrella.
Medicare and Medicaid
By the time Johnson took office, mainly two groups of Americans were uninsured: the elderly and the poor.
Despite Kennedy championing health care for the needy during his 1960 Presidential campaign and beyond, and public support for the cause, many Republicans and some southern Democrats in Congress shot down early Medicare and Medicaid legislation.
After Johnson became President and Democrats took control of Congress in 1964, Medicare and Medicaid became law. Medicare covered hospital and physician costs for the elderly who qualified; Medicaid covered healthcare costs for people getting cash assistance from the government. Both programs served as safety nets for America’s most vulnerable.
Head Start and Education Reform
To empower parents and make sure every child had a shot of success in life no matter their social or economic circumstances, Johnson, politician and activist Sargent Shriver, and a team of child development experts launched Project Head Start.
The Head Start program started as an eight-week summer camp run by the Office of Economic Opportunity for 500,000 children ages three to five. Since the program’s inception, it has served over 32 million vulnerable children in America.
Education reform was also a key part of the Great Society. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed. It guaranteed federal funding for education in school districts whose student majority was low-income. It also:
- funded preschool programs
- supported school libraries
- purchased school textbooks
- provided special education services
The mass exodus to suburbia after World War II left many major cities in poor condition. Affordable, dependable housing was hard to find, especially for the poor.
The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 provided federal funds to cities for urban renewal and development. For cities to receive the funds, they had to establish minimum housing standards.
The law also provided easier access to home mortgages and a controversial rent-subsidy program for vulnerable Americans who qualified for public housing.
Support for Arts and Humanities
In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act. It declared “the arts and humanities belong to all the people of the United States” and that culture is a concern of the government, not just private citizens.
The law also established the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts to study the humanities and fund and support cultural organizations such as museums, libraries, public television, public radio and public archives.
To help battle worsening water pollution, Johnson signed the Water Quality Act in 1965 to help set national water quality standards. Also signed in 1965, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act formed the first vehicle emissions standards.
Furthermore, Johnson’s administration passed laws to protect wildlife and rivers and form a network of scenic trails among historic landmarks.
On the consumer protection front, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Child Safety Act were created to develop consumer product safety rules to make sure products were safe for both children and adults.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act was passed in October 1965. It ended immigration nationality quotas, although it focused on reuniting families and still placed limits on immigrants per country and total immigration.
The Great Society Backlash and Vietnam
Not every American citizen or politician was satisfied with the results of Johnson’s Great Society agenda. And some resented what they saw as government handouts and felt the government should butt out of Americans' lives altogether.
In 1968, President Richard M. Nixon set out to undo or revamp much of the Great Society’s legislation. He and other Republicans still wanted to help the poor and the needy, but wanted to cut the red tape and reduce costs. Nixon wasn’t completely successful, however, and the political infighting for social reform has been raging ever since.
Despite Johnson’s Great Society having a lasting impact on almost all future political and social agendas, his success was overshadowed by the Vietnam War. He was forced to divert funds from the War on Poverty to the War in Vietnam.
And despite the enormous amount of legislation passed by his administration, Johnson is seldom remembered as a champion of the underprivileged and at-risk. Instead, he’s arguably better known as the commander-in-chief who forced America into an unwinnable war that resulted in over 58,000 American military fatalities.
About Us: Mission, Vision, History. National Head Start Association.
CMS’ Program History: Medicare and Medicaid. CMS.gov.
Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. VCU Libraries Social Welfare History Project.
Lyndon B. Johnson. Whitehouse.gov.
National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L.89-209). National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Healthcare Legacy of the Great Society. Princeton University.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: The War on Poverty, March 1964. Modern History Sourcebooks.
Statistical Information About Casualties of the Vietnam War. National Archives.