President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society was an aggressive agenda of domestic legislative reforms. Introduced at a speech given at the University of Michigan in May 1964, Johnson’s list of programs seemed limitless, and would lead, he hoped, to better schools, better health, better cities, safer highways, a more beautiful nation, support for the arts, and more equality.
By the time Johnson became president, he had already had three decades of political experience. During his tenure in Congress, he had experienced New Deal legislation and the mobilization of resources against enemies in World War II. Once he became president, Johnson decided to use all of the powers given to him to extend and even surpass the New Deal’s progressive record. With his landslide victory in the 1964 election, he had a powerful mandate and a large Democratic majority in Congress. These factors gave Johnson what he needed to carry out his plan. He was particularly interested in equality of opportunity, improved urban conditions, an improved educational system, ending poverty, and implementing racial justice.
The Housing and Urban Development Act was put into effect in 1965. It offered reduced interest rates to builders of housing for the poor and elderly. In addition, it allocated funds for urban beautification programs, health programs, recreation centers, and improvements to inner-city housing and provided a rent-supplement program for the poor. To streamline and control programs, the law made it mandatory that all applications for federal aid to cities be approved by city or regional planning agencies. To administer the new programs, Congress created a new cabinet secretary and agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1964 Congress granted nearly $400 million for masstransit planning. In 1966 Congress allocated even more funds for that purpose, and created a new agency, the Department of Transportation, to administer them.
The Model Cities Act of 1966 granted $1.2 billion for slum clearance and removal. The goal of the act was to revitalize inner-city life in many respects, including housing, schools, job training, recreation, and health care. The law gave funds to new model communities.
Another of Johnson’s goals was to improve the quality of education. Johnson, a former teacher, envisioned the Great Society as one in which all children could enrich their minds. To achieve this, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965 and allocated over $1 billion for programs to aid children who were seen as educationally deprived. The bulk of that money went to schools in poor districts. However, the bill also targeted bilingual education for Hispanic children and the education of disabled children.
In addition to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act was also passed in 1965. This act created a federal scholarship and loan program for college students and provided library grants to colleges and universities to increase their resources. These two acts had an enormous impact on the state of education in the United States, but also increased government expenditures substantially. In 1965 alone, government spending on education was over $4 billion.
The Great Society drastically improved the state of healthcare. Johnson’s Medicare bill was enacted by Congress in 1965 and provided health insurance for all Americans over the age of 65. Medicare was initially provided with a fund of $6.5 billion, with long-range funding to come from increased social security payroll deductions. To increase the number of health professionals, Congress passed funding for nursing and medical schools and provided scholarships for students to enter those fields. Medicare’s companion program, Medicaid, administered through state welfare systems, provided healthcare for poor Americans.
Preserving the environment and national splendor was another of Johnson’s Great Society goals. Johnson sought to combat the effects of industrialization, which included shrinking wilderness areas, vanishing species of wildlife, a degradation of the landscape, and pollution. During Johnson’s presidency, Congress passed nearly 300 pieces of legislation relating to beautification, pollution, and conservation—amounting to expenditures of $12 billion. Another aspect of Johnson’s Great Society was the “war on poverty.” One of the largest pieces of legislation passed to wage the war on poverty was the Economic Opportunity Act, passed in August 1964. The act had 10 major parts. Head Start offered basic skills training to preschoolers. The Upward Bound program helped gifted students from poor families attend college. Another section of the act expanded the 1962 Manpower Development and Training Act, which focused on job training. Job Corps was created to teach important and marketable skills to inner-city youth, and the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) was a domestic parallel to President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps. The Legal Services Program provided lawyers to defend the rights of low-income citizens. Other parts of the Economic Opportunity Act funded public works programs in poor and rural areas and provided loans for small farmers and small businesses. To administer the war on poverty, the act created the Office of Economic Opportunity.
Another section of the Economic Opportunity Act was the Community Action Program. It allocated $300 million for local antipoverty programs. This initiative reflected the belief held by some that social-policy formation had too many experts and bureaucrats and lacked grassroots input. By 1966 more than 1,000 Community Action Programs were in place, including in many African-American and Mexican-American inner-city neighborhoods. They led to increased community activism. The programs encouraged political organization and community development, and when used as intended, their funds went to education, medical services, and legal services.
COURT DECISIONS The Supreme Court had its part in the Great Society as well. The Court’s decisions improved individual rights, equal protection under the law, and electoral processes. To help give all citizens an equal voice at the polls, Baker v. Carr (1962) made states do all that was practical to maintain population balance in the drawing of congressional and state legislature lines. Gideon
v. Wainwright (1963) ensured that poor people would have legal counsel provided to them by the court if they could not afford to pay. The 1966 case of Miranda v.
Arizona mandated that people be informed of their legal rights when placed under arrest.
Civil rights was another integral part of the Great Society. However, it was also one of the hardest to achieve. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, opponents of the bill filibustered for 75 days. However, on June 11, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 73 to 27. The bill targeted racism in American life. It made it easier for the attorney general to take part in all civil rights cases and allowed him or her to prosecute segregated school districts and election officials who denied voting rights to black Americans. Other sections for- bade discrimination in public facilities, hiring, and federally funded programs.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 authorized federal officials to register voters and oversee elections. It outlawed long-standing measures used primarily in southern states to keep African Americans from voting. By mid-1966 a half-million African Americans were registered to vote in the South; by 1968 nearly 400 African Americans held elected office in that region. A final civil rights measure, the Open Housing Act, was passed in 1968 and outlawed racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. Also under the heading of civil rights was the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished discriminatory national-origins policies.
Although some of Johnson’s Great Society measures were received with mixed feelings, they helped overall to improve the quality of life for millions of Americans. The impact of his legislation is still felt today. However, even with all of the success of President Johnson’s Great Society, his presidency was marred by the stigma of Vietnam, the cost of which curtailed spending on some of his Great Society programs. His noble and idealistic crusade was cut short by a bitter and unpopular war.
See also Vietnam War.