The Great Society

Fifty-five years ago, on May 22nd, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced his Great Society program at Ann Arbor, Michigan. Its scope was breathtaking, aiming at nothing less than the total elimination of poverty and racial injustice in the United States.

Fundamentally, it came down to a series of spending programmes that aimed to tackle shortcomings in education, healthcare, transport, and the problems faced by people in cities and rural areas. Johnson had small working parties of about half a dozen people, working in secret so their initiatives would not be “derailed by criticism.” This meant that shortcomings, which might have been recognized and addressed as the programmes were being planned, were not identified and rectified.

In practice this involved vast spending schemes. The “war on poverty” started with a $1 billion appropriation in 1964 and then another $2 billion in the following two years. It involved dozens of programs such as the Job Corps, to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable skills, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, to give poor urban youths work experience, and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, designed to help young people from poor homes gain access to job training and higher education.

Its well-meaning, but ill-thought-out, idea was but to help the poor better themselves through education, job training, and community development, and to have them participate in the development of the programmes designed to help them.

It did food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, and granted billions of dollars for states to spend on everything from educational research to library books and school buses. It provided money for slum clearance and urban regeneration. It tackled every perceived problem by providing vast sums of money to address it. While it undoubtedly achieved some positive results, critics pointed out that its biggest achievement was the creation of a giant bureaucracy that attempted to step into every aspect of American life, and to guide and steer it. They further claimed that the results it achieved were tiny compared to the input of effort and resources. Milton Friedman famously described such state welfare progammes as akin to throwing silver dollars at a barn door in the hope that some would slip though the knot-holes.

Critics from the Left suggested that its shortcomings were down to not enough money being spent, and blamed its failures on the Vietnam War sucking up the funds it needed. In retrospect it was a much-hyped failure, big in intentions, but poor in its outcomes. The monies diverted to fund it could almost certainly have achieved more in terms of economic growth and the opportunities this brings for advancement of poorer and underprivileged people, including ethnic and racial minorities.

The lessons are perhaps that big often doesn’t work, and that small-scale, carefully targetted efforts involving voluntary and private sector participation can be more efficacious. The legacy of the Great Society is with America still, in the form of costly entitlements that cannot be funded in the future, and which all politicians kick down the road for the next generation to solve.