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25 Years After the Dream : Can L.B.J.'s Great Society Ever Exist?

Times Staff Writer

It is only 25 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson first declared his hopes and plans for a Great Society in America, but his words now sound as distant and strange as echoes from another epoch in another world.

So remote do those times seem to the present era of budget restraints and hands-off government that the anniversary of Johnson’s speech launching the Great Society--May 22, 1964, at the University of Michigan--passed entirely without notice.

Societal Ills

Yet the ideas of his Great Society are still at the heart of the debate over what to do about the persistent ills of American society--the poverty, the homelessness, the illiteracy, the crime.

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Politicians and analysts, in fact, still cannot agree whether these tenacious problems prove the failure of the Great Society or the failure to give it a chance.

Richard N. Goodwin, the White House speech writer who coined the phrase, believes that the plethora of problems now makes clear the wisdom of Johnson then. “All the problems that Johnson was talking about then are problems that we still have now,” Goodwin said recently. “Only they are worse.”

Goodwin argues that the Vietnam War doomed the Great Society. “Johnson had the power to do it all with Congress,” he said. “That’s what was forfeited in the war. The Great Society was abandoned as an ongoing process. It was preserved in amber. He never went beyond that.”

But Charles Murray, a former evaluator of government programs who has become one of the most influential debunkers of the Great Society, still sees little good in most of its programs. He believes that the government, no matter how much money it spends, does not know how to solve such stubborn problems as poverty.

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“I’m more gloomy than I have ever been, to tell you the truth,” he said recently. “I have never seen a silver lining to that particular cloud.”

Affluent, Confident Nation

The America that generated the Great Society felt affluent and abundant and confident about solving its knottiest problems. As Johnson drummed up support for his $1.2-billion aid to education bill, for example, he insisted that his bill would spawn a new generation of needed doctors and scientists.

“Why, if we could find the answer to heart disease and to strokes and to cancer, we’d save $32 billion a year, and this whole education bill hasn’t got but a billion two hundred million,” he said. “Now, some of them (conservative critics) are going to say, ‘If it is a billion two hundred million this year, it will be more next year.’ ”

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He paused for a touch of drama. “Well,” he said, “it will be.”

Although the anniversary of the Great Society speech passed unnoticed this year, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum and the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation will mark Johnson’s legacy by sponsoring a pair of conferences next April and May, shortly after the 25th anniversary of the beginning of Johnson’s first and only full term in office. The conferences--in Austin, Tex., and Washington--will focus on the two dominant themes of Johnson’s presidency, the Great Society and the Vietnam War.

Some chroniclers claim that the term Great Society can be traced to a 1914 book by English Fabian Socialist Graham Wallas called “The Great Society,” or to a 1937 book by American political philosopher Walter Lippmann called “The Good Society.”

But Goodwin describes his use of the phrase as no more than “a fragment of rhetorical stuffing” that he had prepared for a Johnson speech on “a relatively trivial occasion"--the presentation of the first Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Award in March, 1964.

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The occasion was so trivial that--although Goodwin insists Johnson delivered the speech--most books on the Johnson Administration claim that the President decided to use another speech that night.

Stamp of L.B.J. Administration

In any case, there is no doubt that Johnson liked the sound of the new phrase, used it often in the next few weeks, savored its echoes in the press and finally decided to use it to stamp his Administration. Johnson wanted it to identify him the way the New Deal identified Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Frontier, John F. Kennedy.

Johnson decided to outline his plans for the Great Society--set with capital letters for the first time--in his May 22 speech to the University of Michigan. Goodwin was put to work on it.

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The United States was then in unprecedented prosperity, a period of continuous growth, and many Americans believed that untold abundance lay within reach. The Great Society represented a plan to harness that abundance for the good of all.

Johnson intended to create the Great Society in a sweeping governmental campaign on two fronts. He believed that the War on Poverty and the civil rights legislation already approved by Congress would eliminate almost all the large pockets of poverty and inequity in the United States.

At the same time, he believed that Washington should work to improve the spirit of affluent Americans still dissatisfied in spite of the good times. Government programs would erase the tensions and blights of the cities, restore the beauty of the environment, expand the extent and improve the content of education and, in general, enhance the quality of life.

“Let us from this moment begin our work,” Johnson told the University of Michigan, “so that in the future men will look back and say: It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.”

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The election of 1964 gave Johnson a landslide and his Democratic Party a larger majority in Congress than any President had enjoyed since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Congress enacted Great Society bills in a frenzy. Johnson liked to quote New York Times columnist Tom Wicker’s cry of astonishment in 1965: “They are rolling the bills out of Congress these days the way Detroit turns super-sleek, souped-up autos off the assembly line.”

Many of today’s best-known federal programs owe their start to that period. Head Start, Medicare, food stamps, housing subsidies, federal aid to elementary and secondary schools and to universities, voting rights, clean air, Model Cities, job training, truth in packaging and in lending, student loans and a score or more of other programs were born.

But the optimistic mood of the Great Society was dissipated in the Vietnam War, the stagnant economy of the 1970s and the Reagan Administration’s antipathy in the 1980s.

The dramatic change in mood prompted many people to look on the idea of the Great Society as foolhardy and wrong-headed. Many Americans became convinced that the government had spent billions of dollars to no avail.

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President Reagan accentuated the mood in his State of the Union address in 1988. “My friends,” he declared, “some years ago the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”

Yet these kinds of glib judgments about the Great Society do not always hold up under the light of evidence. The Great Society comprised so many programs that it is not easy to assess whether it worked or not. While some programs were obvious failures, others were clear successes and many more can be classified as neither one nor the other.

The definite failures are few. Almost no one has a good word these days for the community action programs that supplied funds to help the poor organize themselves to solve their problems in education, employment, housing and welfare; the new organizations antagonized both elected officials and old welfare agencies. Young black unemployment is so high now that it is clear job training programs failed to impart enough work skills to young blacks in the inner cities. The public schools are in such crisis these days that it is hard to credit the various federal aid-to-education programs with much success. The percentage of black high school graduates entering college even dropped from 34% in 1976 to 26% in 1985.

But the number of outright successes is high. The Voting Rights Act changed the face of politics in the South. Blacks now make up the majority of voters in three Southern congressional districts and 20% to 50% of the voters in 41 other districts. Both liberals and conservatives heap praise on the Head Start program that offers preschooling for poor 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. The only complaint is that tight budgets allow only 20% of the 2.5 million eligible children to take part. Studies show that the food stamp program has steadily reduced the gap in nutrition between poor Americans and other Americans.

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In health care, Medicaid cut infant mortality rates from 1965 to 1980 in half. Medicare, Medicaid and Supplementary Security Income for the elderly all had a hand in reducing the death rate for elderly men from 1960 to 1978 and in raising the life expectancy for all Americans by four years during the same period.

Other programs evoke more ambiguous analysis. While a black middle class is increasing and black professionals have access to fields that once barred or, at the least, ignored them, Johnson’s civil rights legislation did not wipe out the inequities and racism in American society. The median family income for blacks in 1987 was only 57% of the median family income for whites, lower than any year in the 1970s. There is a good deal of despair and smoldering resentment in black inner cities, all of it reflected in movie theaters throughout the nation this month in the Spike Lee movie “Do the Right Thing.”

Housing Programs

Subsidized housing programs also are difficult to analyze, mainly because they were truncated under Ronald Reagan. Conservatives looked on such programs as a waste and a source of corruption.

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Reagan cut the staff of the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 16,000 to 11,000 and reduced its subsidized housing budget from $26 billion to $8 billion, encouraging private entrepreneurs to fill the gap. The cuts in the housing budget probably have contributed to the embarrassing and unsightly picture of the growing number of homeless in America.

Now an enormous scandal in federal housing programs during the Reagan years is unfolding, involving embezzlement of federal funds by private escrow agents and the exposure of a network of favored contracts to developers with influence and political contacts. While many criticized the programs in the past, the scandals are making the Great Society’s subsidized housing look much better.

It is difficult to know how much to credit the Great Society for the constant public demand for an improvement in the environment. While the first clean air legislation was passed in the Johnson Administration, environmental groups are still battling for many of the goals set by the Great Society.

The anti-poverty programs are probably the true touchstone of the Great Society. Although the Great Society comprised much more than the War on Poverty, most Americans, over the years, have tended to equate the two. Critics attacking the Great Society usually save most of their brickbats for poverty. This is not wholly unjustified. No one could claim that the Great Society succeeded if it allowed poverty to rise. Whether it did demands a close study of statistics.

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These show that poverty decreased steadily and substantially during the expansive years of the 1960s, a decline that began even before the Great Society was inaugurated. But after the poverty rate dropped to its all-time low of 11.3% in 1973, it rose slightly before reaching a plateau for most of the rest of the 1970s despite dramatic increases in welfare spending.

In the recessions of the early 1980s, the numbers of poor started to climb again to 15.3% in 1983, almost the level of 20 years earlier when the Great Society began. Poverty declined again after the economy revived in 1983, but it remained at 13.5% in 1987, higher than the levels of the early 1970s.

In terms of numbers of people, 33.2 million Americans were classified as poor in 1965, a number that fell steadily to 23 million in 1973 before returning to 35.3 million in 1983. In 1987, 32.5 million Americans had incomes below the poverty line (then $11,611 for a family of four), nearly the same as in 1965.

Different analysts view these numbers differently. Some use them as evidence that the government is incapable of solving such social problems as poverty--in short, that Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society were wrong. Others find reason to believe that the government can deal with such problems--in short, that Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society made sense.

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Murray, a senior research fellow of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, offers the most negative analysis. In his book “Losing Ground,” Murray argued that many of the programs inspired by the Great Society had not only failed to help the poor but even made things worse. Liberal economists tried, with some success, to paint the book as a conservative diatribe.

Murray sounds somewhat sensitive about this. He paused for several moments recently while discussing poverty.

“I’m hesitating,” he said, “because I had to fight the ‘nothing works’ label for some time. All you had to know was that Murray says nothing works, that Murray says the Great Society is a failure, that Murray says nothing can be done to help poor people. You didn’t have to read the book.”

Murray insists that he believes some programs--such as aid to the elderly--have worked. But most poverty programs have failed, he says, because they have been unable to motivate people who do not feel the need or have the will to escape their poverty.

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“We do not have the technique to do this,” he said. “We didn’t have it in the ‘60s and we didn’t have it in the ‘70s and we still don’t have it in the ‘80s.

“You can see this right in downtown Washington. You will see help-wanted signs all over the place for good jobs with good pay and benefits, and poor people in the rest of the city. People are disconnected from the economy.”

If the Great Society programs had been effective, Murray argues, the poverty rate would have continued to decline during the period of increased welfare spending in the 1970s. But it did not.

In the opposite corner, defending government anti-poverty programs, is Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit Washington institute that monitors poverty in America. He has disputed many of Murray’s arguments in speeches, in numerous interviews and in newspaper and magazine articles.

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For Greenstein, the evidence is clear. Without the Great Society programs, he insists, the poverty rate would have soared during the stagnant economy of the 1970s.

“From 1968 to 1980,” he has written, “the slowing of the economy dropped people into poverty and the broadening of benefit programs lifted them out. The two trends roughly balanced each other and the poverty rate remained about the same.”

Likewise, Greenstein sees the failure of poverty to decline significantly during the strong economy of the later Reagan Administration years as further proof that government policies make a significant difference.

He acknowledges that the high rate of families headed by single mothers contributes a good deal to the current swell of poverty. But he cites two government policies as more important factors.

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The minimum wage, $3.35 an hour since 1981, has lost so much ground against inflation that it is no longer enough to keep a family of three above the poverty line, Greenstein says. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he says, the minimum wage would at least have accomplished that.

Even more important, Greenstein blames the Reagan cuts in government benefits, especially for children. In 1979, he says, Census Bureau statistics showed that government benefits lifted nearly one in five poor families with children out of poverty. In 1987, government benefits could salvage only one in every 10 such families from poverty.

“Compared to 1973,” he said, “the safety net is stronger for the elderly poor but considerably weaker for families with children.” He also pointed out that the gap between wealthy families and poor families is now greater than it has been at any time since the end of World War II.

There are, of course, echoes of the Great Society in Greenstein’s analysis--the belief that government has the obligation and the means and the resources to grapple with a social evil such as poverty. But the echoes lack the extravagance of Lyndon Johnson’s rhetoric.

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“I think the government could get the poverty level well below 11%,” the record low in 1973, Greenstein said recently. “But could they get it to zero? I doubt it.”

Although the ideas of the Great Society infuse the debate, analysts like Greenstein rarely invoke the name of Johnson in their discussions and never repeat his promises. They believe now that a problem like poverty can be eased but not eliminated in times of stagnant economy and high unemployment.

Even the adviser who came up with the slogan has some doubts now about the extravagance of its promises. “It all looks utopian from today’s perspective,” Goodwin said. “But it seemed possible in 1964.”


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