The “Great Society” is a phrase used to describe the domestic policies of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–69). While many of the programs had their origins in President John Kennedy’s administration, while Johnson was vice president, they were not enacted until after Kennedy’s assassination. In his first speech to a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963, President Johnson said “let us continue” the work of the nation and President Kennedy by passing civil rights and tax relief legislation. Johnson worked with Congress on these and other areas of domestic policy in his hopes of crafting his great society.
Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America (1962), brought a groundswell of public attention to the problem of poverty. In January 1964, in his first State of the Union address, President Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” Later that year Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, which created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The OEO aimed to provide programs such as Head Start for preschoolers and vocational training under the Job Corps. The Revenue Act in 1964 also aided the poverty war by cutting taxes by more than $10 billion. Government statistics showed almost a 7 percent drop in the poverty level between 1959 and 1966.
The election of 1964 was a sweeping victory for both President Johnson and Democrats in Congress. Democrats enjoyed a comfortable 295 to 140 buffer in the House and a margin of 68 to 32 in the Senate. Social legislation under Johnson’s watch moved swiftly through Congress. Aid to education was closely linked to the War on Poverty. In 1965 Congress passed more than $1 billion in funding for local schools and impoverished young students with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Appropriations were also made for postsecondary education under the Higher Education Act of 1965, which provided for college scholarships for needy students and subsidized interest costs on college loans.
Health benefits were another major concern for the Johnson administration. For the elderly, Congress passed a Medicare package that provided for benefits to defray medical costs to Americans over 65. For the poverty-stricken, a Medicaid package helped meet the costs of doctors’ bills.
The largest of all Great Society initiatives came in the form of civil rights legislation. President Johnson and Congress followed recommendations left behind by President Kennedy and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act barred discrimination on the basis of race in all public accommodations. It also authorized the Justice Department to prosecute facilities that remained segregated. In response to violence and protest in the South, Congress moved to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act barred literacy tests or other qualifications for voting. African American voter registration in the South dramatically increased after the act was passed; Mississippi saw almost a 700 percent increase, Alabama had a jump of nearly 300 percent, and South Carolina rose 230 percent.
When President Johnson addressed commencement at the University of Michigan in May 1964, he initiated his view for a “Great Society.” Poverty, education, health care, and civil rights provided the cornerstones for Johnson’s vision. Since their inception, these programs continue to be the focus of great debate for historians and political scientists alike.
John A. Andrew, Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society (Chicago: I. R. Dee, Inc., 1998); Irving Bernstein, Guns or Butter? The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); and Irwin Unger, The Best of Intentions: The Triumph and Failures of the Great Society under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
D. Steven Cronin
Last updated: 2006