50 years ago

FIFTY YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, on May 22, 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson stood before that year’s graduating class at the University of Michigan and delivered the speech that launched his Great Society program. It is a sad commentary on both the state of our economy and our politics that a Democratic president giving a similar speech today is almost unimaginable.

In a way, Johnson was speaking directly to us, the descendants of those policy makers and visionaries:

“The challenge of the next half-century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth [i.e., the fruits of economic progress of the previous 50 years] to enrich and elevate our national life and to advance the quality of our American civilization. Your imagination and your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society but upward to the Great Society.”

The mid-1960s were heady days in American society. It was the crest of the post-war economic boom, real progress had been made in racial relations in the South and elsewhere, and the New Deal and the victory in World War II meant that Americans overwhelmingly trusted their government to do the right thing most of the time.

And plenty that LBJ and the 89th Congress did have enduring and positive effects. The Medicare program drastically reduced elderly poverty; Medicaid meant that poor people were no longer crushed by medical debt, or had to go without medical care altogether because of an inability to pay. The Head Start program has been so successful that even many conservatives defend it today. The Civil and Voting Rights Acts made it possible for African Americans to exercise what most people recognize as basic civil rights without interference from the entrenched white power structure of the South.

Less tangibly, there was a flush of idealism in the United States that is hard to convey to today’s more jaded generations. Even if the Great Society had its failures — and it had plenty — they were at least well-intentioned failures. Johnson envisioned completely eliminating poverty in the U.S. in the decades after his programs were enacted. The verdict of history is that, so far at least, this goal has not been achieved. But that does not diminish the value of the Great Society’s successes.

If there was a consistent flaw in the Great Society, it was because of Johnson’s, and Americans’, gross underestimation of the complexity and difficulty of both the causes of and remedies for poverty.

The expectations were pretty straightforward: Provide the poor with the advantages that had built the white American middle class — education, health care, income support, and so on — and then the middle class would be expanded by formerly poor people, and all would live happily ever after.

The factor they failed to take proper measure of was the effects of history.

Sargent Shriver, who led LBJ’s war on poverty in the 1960s, referred to this when he said: “We weren’t quite prepared for the bitterness and the antagonism and the violence — in some cases, the emotional outbursts — that accompanied an effort to alleviate poverty. … There were an awful lot of people, both white and black, who had generations of pent-up feelings. … The placid life of most middle-class Americans was stunned, shocked, by all this social explosion, and then a lot of fear came into the hearts and minds of a lot of middle-class people — not only fear, but then real hostility.”

Having spent the second half of the 1960s in Richmond, California, in a predominantly black neighborhood, I can attest to the rage that suddenly found a national audience at that time. Giving a voice to long-suppressed feelings can be traumatic for everyone concerned. Validating the suffering of people who have been victimized for generations can make the suffering they have experienced suddenly and unbearably vivid. This goes a long way in explaining the social unrest that swept the country in the second half of the 1960s.

There was an opportunity for white, middle class America to sit and listen to that rage, and to appreciate the deep and very real causes of it. To do so would have required heroic levels of humility, because most white Americans were unprepared to acknowledge their complicity — particularly in the form of a long and cold silence — in causing it. But remaining present would mean that the rage would eventually fade away, and what followed would be an opportunity for honest conversation, an airing of grievances, redress of those grievances and, ultimately, reconciliation and healing.

We still have that opportunity. You and I can decide to make America the place envisioned by LBJ. I hope that one day we make that decision, and commit to the difficult but eternally worthy project of making of this nation a more perfect union.

About Matt Talbot
  • B

    What LBJ failed to recognize are the pathologies that would accompany a half century of increasing government benefits and subsidies. To the eyes of some, the decrease in independence and self reliance and disintegrating family structure are the legacy of the Great Society. We cannot afford, economically and morally, to continue on the path set by the Great Society. As has been noted by some, American trust in government allowed LBJ to do what he did. Today’s low level of trust in government is in part a consequence of what LBJ began.

    • Jordan

      re: B [May 25, 2014 8:59 am]: To the eyes of some, the decrease in independence and self reliance and disintegrating family structure are the legacy of the Great Society.

      The United States’s largest employer pays a wage which quite often forces its workers onto food stamps. Walmart even holds Christmas time food drives for its employees.

      The question is not “the decrease in independence and self reliance”, but rather exploitative employers who take advantage of Great Society programs to augment the non-living-wages paid to their employees. Sure, some play up the racist meme of the “welfare queen” and her Escalade to discredit SNAP and other assistance programs, but in reality corporate America’s refusal to pay living wages weighs down working poor Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds who are forced into welfare programs just to put food on the table. Do you know how much Walmart would have to increase the price of a box of mac ‘n’ cheese in order to pay a living wage to its employees?

      $0.02. Is a worker’s ability to scrape by on the teetering edge of self sufficiency worth two bits?

      • B

        The problem is, whose definition of a `living wage’ are you going to use?
        And what’s to keep it from going up and up and up until that box of macaroni and cheese is $0.20 higher and the people buying it will demand an even higher `living wage’ so they can afford their macaroni and cheese. I’m not an economist, but I think this is called inflation and of course it hurts most those who practice all those good traits like thrift and deferred gratification.

        The cheaper a thing is the greater the demand for it. When something is free there is an infinite demand. And if someone gets `free’ things from the government they are unlikely to appreciate the true cost of government in the way the taxpayer will.

        As a compassionate people it is appropriate to provide help to those who through no fault of their own cannot provide for themselves. But it should be done in a transparent way such that everyone, those who are on the receiving end as well as those on the providing end, know how much things cost. Our tax system does not do that for obvious political reasons – the more free stuff a politician can promise voters the more votes he will get.

        Distorting the natural forces of supply and demand by artificially raising wages to some minimum based on politics rather than economics does no favors to anyone in the long run. Only wage increases based on greater productivity will generate economic growth. And only economic growth can keep the U.S. competitive in a global economy thereby assuring future generations of a high standard of living.

      • Jordan

        re: B [May 30, 2014 6:50 pm]: I’m not an economist, but I think this is called inflation and of course it hurts most those who practice all those good traits like thrift and deferred gratification.

        I drive a 17-year-old Toyota with a touch of psoriasis. I am committed to driving that car until the body and chassis part ways or the engine blows up. I shop thrift stores very often. I wear shoes until I step in a puddle and feel the damp through a hole in the sole. Don’t feed me bullshit about “thrift”, okay?

        Distorting the natural forces of supply and demand by artificially raising wages to some minimum based on politics rather than economics does no favors to anyone in the long run.

        Wages have been stagnant relative to inflation since the 1970’s and perhaps even earlier. If supply/demand cannot raise wages to keep up with inflationary pressure (or if businesses artifically suppress inflationary pressure through underhanded tactics), then political action to manipulate wages ensures not only that people will eat, but also that they will have some discretionary income which must be spent to buoy any economy. This is especially true in the moment, as economic growth out of recession depends on purchases which range from homes and cars to that stale box of mac ‘n’ cheese.

        Only wage increases based on greater productivity will generate economic growth

        Productivity will collide with (and has already collided with) a metaphorical impasse so long as employers refuse to raise artificially low wage ceilings. Why should an employee work harder or for longer hours if he or she knows that they will never be paid a salary which keeps up with a realistic assessment of inflation versus wages? Employers can deny persons just wages so long as the public social net artificially presents the facade of a living wage by enabling delinquent employers. If the social net is strained, as it is in this extended depression recession, then it is in government’s best interest to relieve strain through mandating that employers pay a wage which better reflects certain metrics, such as the CPI.

  • LM

    The Great Society programs for the most part did not fail. The Great Society included programs like Medicare, Medicaid, consumer protections that included warning labels for cigarettes, and environmental protections like the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Protection Act. But the fact that welfare aspects of the Great Society program were extended to blacks is enough to condemn the whole thing. As Ira Katznelson describes in “When Affirmative Action Was White,” blacks were purposely excluded from many of the labor protections and welfare benefits in the New Deal to secure support from the Dixiecrats. Ethnic whites in industrial cities were able to get benefits for their particular groups through political machines. But the minute blacks started to become the equal beneficiaries of government aid, the entirety of welfare was condemned (never mind that most people on welfare have and always been white). Concerns about “federal spending” and “big government” are really just code words for “I don’t like any program or service that gives the appearance of benefiting black people.” I bet a national healthcare program would have been passed a long time ago if there was a clause in it to deny services to black people. Aging white America simply doesn’t want to invest in a future that will be majority black and Latino and that’s why our infrastructure and public amenities are being abandoned en masse.

    And as for the state of the black family, much of the problem stems from a lacks of jobs, the War on Drugs (for which there seems to be more interest than the War on Poverty), and a lack of mass transit. Google the “spatial mismatch theory” for more about how poor people tend to live significantly far away from places where jobs are being created. I say if you really think that woman’s place is in the home and abortion is to avoided at all costs, then pay poor women to be SAHMs, rather than force them to work minimum wage jobs at McDonalds or Wal-Mart.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I do not want to throw out the baby with the bath water: much good was accomplished by the Great Society programs—I always think of SSI, though technically that was created a few years later by Richard Nixon.

    But I think, after 50 years, it is worth asking whether these programs are fully in accord with Catholic social teaching, such as mutuality, subsidiarity and respect for the human person. I have not thought this through so I cannot give any answers, but I think this is a more important and fruitful question than the standard left/right debates.

    • Kurt

      LM made a very helpful comment. Some use their general dissatisfaction with the social changes in the 1960s to attack Great Society legislation. But let takes those pieces of legislation one by one and ask for an explanation on how they caused family breakdown.

      Programs for the elderly such as Medicare, the Older Americans Act (including ‘meals on wheels’)?

      Education programs such as Head Start, Pell Grants, Student Loans and aid to special education?

      Consumer legislation such as Truth in Packaging Act, Truth in Lending Act, the Wholesome Meat Act, the Wholesome Poultry Act, Cigarette Warning Labels, Clean Water Act, Child Safety legislation and the Ban on flammable sleepware for children.

      Mass transit aid to cities.

      And on the specific means tested programs, Medicaid, expansion of food stamps, section 8 housing, and the “Catholic” inspired programs of OEO, CAA and VISTA.

  • Stuart

    I just saw a documentary by Robert Reich called Inequality For All and I finally got it: If you give $1000 to someone who makes $30,000, they spend it and it goes back into the economy. If you give $1000 to someone who makes $1,000,000, they don’t have to spend it, so they save it, and it doesn’t go back into the economy. The End.

    Based on this simple principle, it would seem that putting extra money in the hands of those who make $30,000 dollars would get the economy moving, in that a bunch of people buying more stuff would create jobs faster. Trusting someone with $1,000,000 dollars to use his extra money to hire more people or pay fairer wages when he doesn’t have to seems a bit dewy-eyed optimistic to me.

    I think that giving money to people who will spend it is the Catholic economic system, Distributivism. It’s very much like the way God set up Israel–whatever was leftover was given to the poor, even the poor undocumented workers like Ruth, so that everyone had their basic needs. When people say that the Sermon on the Mount is only for individuals and not government, I think they should look at how God judged the NATION of Israel in the Prophets. Our nation will be judged the same way–on how our laws reflect our distribution of goods. See Amos for how God looks at America right now.

    I’m not sure why some Catholics are so rabidly irate at the idea of money being taken from the rich through taxation and given to the poor. Wouldn’t it encourage women not to have abortions if they knew that there were social programs to help them with their pregnancy and help them raise their children? But no–we will work to stop abortions by wagging our rosaries at scared young women as they walk into Planned Parenthood, but we will not, not, NOT take hard-earned (or hard-invested, or hard-inherited) money away from the kind, wise, and merciful rich to give that lazy young woman help with food and daycare.

    • Jordan

      re: Stuart [May 26, 2014 9:16 am]:

      But no–we will work to stop abortions by wagging our rosaries at scared young women as they walk into Planned Parenthood, but we will not, not, NOT take hard-earned (or hard-invested, or hard-inherited) money away from the kind, wise, and merciful rich to give that lazy young woman help with food and daycare.

      Stuart, first it is important to not criticize a person for his or her devotion to their hard earned money. We are all saddled with material desire. This is true whether a person invests in their children’s education and tithes to PBS, or spends all of his or her money on fancy cars and a prefabricated mansion. Avarice is a human condition; so is discrimination and racism. The ills of human conditions are renovated through a faithful charity, human introspection, and renovation in faith, and not by forcible seizure of money. Be the example of “Simplify!” and others will live simply with you.

      • Stuart

        Paying taxes is not forcible seizure or theft–it is essentially rent. It is what a grateful, patriotic citizen pays as his civic duty for living in a safe, healthy, well-educated country. We know that our prosperity is only possible when our taxes pay for roads, military protection, food safety, public education and all things which are the foundation of our society.

        Jesus welcomed tax collectors such as Matthew and Zacchaeus and ate with them, much to the consternation of the Tea Party equivalent of His day. Paul told people that governments were appointed by God for the common good, and paying taxes was our way to participate. The USCCB laid down some guidelines in their letter, “Economic Justice For All”:

        “First, the tax system should raise adequate revenues to pay for the public needs of society, especially to meet the basic needs of the poor.
        Secondly, the tax system should be structured according to the principle of progressivity, so that those with relatively greater financial resources pay a higher rate of taxation. The inclusion of such a principle in tax policies is an important means of reducing the severe inequalities of income and wealth in the nation.
        Thirdly, families below the official poverty line should not be required to pay income taxes. Such families are, by definition, without sufficient resources to purchase the basic necessities of life. They should not be forced to bear the additional burden of paying income taxes.21 They enunciated three principles to guide such evaluations.”

        We want, as Catholics, to contribute to the common good. One way to do that is to trust those we thoughtfully and carefully elect to collect and wisely distribute revenue so that all may share in the prosperity to which all contribute in some way, however small. In some cases, such as the unborn, unemployed, addicted, homeless, sick, or elderly, that contribution may seem immaterial, but our Catholic pro-life stance tells that no human life is useless, all contribute in some way, and every life needs full support from conception to natural death to make whatever small contribution they make to our society. Collecting revenue from those who have extra to spare and giving it to those whose contribution might seem invisible or insignificant is a privilege of the grateful, generous citizens of a Judeo-Christian nation.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ron.chandonia Ron Chandonia

    We do the Great Society no favors by looking at its programs uncritically. Take this one: “The Head Start program has been so successful that even many conservatives defend it today.” In reality, as a result of the most objective assessment of the program, the Brookings Institution concluded a few years ago, “Head Start isn’t doing the job the families it serves and the nation need.” See http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2010/01/21-head-start-whitehurst

  • Agellius

    “If you give $1000 to someone who makes $1,000,000, they don’t have to spend it, so they save it, and it doesn’t go back into the economy. The End.”

    Except that people don’t just put money under their mattresses. Rich people usually invest it. Even if it only goes into a savings account, the bank turns around and lends it out, thus putting it back into the economy. Only the woefully ignorant and paranoid actually take money out of economic circulation.

    • Stuart

      It goes into an overseas bank account and is lent out to companies who hire overseas workers. We don’t see the money here. If you give $1000 to middle income people here (say, in the form of an increased minimum wage), they spend it here in this country and it helps this economy.

      • Agellius

        “It goes into an overseas bank account ….”

        It may or it may not. Believe it or not, a certain amount of American money is actually deposited and invested in the United States. Heck, even foreigners invest here. Or do you think that only poor people and foreigners deposit their money in American banks, and invest in American companies and real estate ventures?

        • Stuart

          Yes–rich people send their money to offshore accounts in order to avoid taxes. Which would redistribute their money into this economy.

        • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

          Agellius – I think the point is that, faced with a situation of inadequate final demand, putting money into the hands of people who are likely to spend it on consumer goods is better than putting it into the hands of people who will invest it, since investment in increased capacity or productivity enhancing technology increases the supply without increasing the demand.

  • Agellius

    I was born in the middle of the 60s and like you, grew up in a lower-class, predominantly minority area. I couldn’t afford to be racist. It wasn’t allowed. Besides, if anything, I felt inferior to the tan-colored majority. My white skin was not considered attractive by the girls I knew. It was considered pasty. All my girlfriends and crushes throughout my teen years were of Mexican descent. My parents were divorced and I was raised from the age of 5 by my mom and a black stepfather. I ended up marrying a Filipino and have mixed-race kids.

    Now that I’ve established my street cred, I can feel free to speak my mind. Right? : )

    Racism is a cultural artifact. No one today made things the way they are. To our country’s credit, over time we realized how bad it was and started the process of cultural change, which is ongoing. This change was not imposed on us from without, but arose from within. Cultural traits which have been centuries in the making, are not going to disappear overnight.

    This, in fact, is precisely the argument made in favor of programs to mitigate the disadvantages suffered by minorities due to past racism. Blacks suffered under slavery for 300 years, it’s not surprising that 150 years after being freed, they have not completely overcome its effects. But by the same token, after enslaving blacks for 300 years, it should not be surprising that whites also have not completely overcome its effects. Both blacks and whites need time to change their respective cultures; but all agree that change they must. Neither can afford to leave things the way they have been in the past.

    The minorities I know who don’t make an issue of race, seem to be doing fine. My black stepbrother makes at least 50% more money than I do, as does my half-Mexican cousin, and my mom’s Mexican boyfriend. If hatred of nonwhites by American whites is so strong as to prevent them from succeeding, then my Filipino in-laws defy explanation, since every one of them lives a comfortable, middle-class life (with the exception of one niece, who everyone in the family agrees can’t hold a job because she is either too proud to take orders, or is simply lazy).

    I realize that the main problem for poor American blacks is that they are growing up in poor neighborhoods, in families that have been poor for generations. I wholeheartedly agree that this is a serious problem. But note that the problem is poverty and not skin color. That the poverty was initially the result of racism on the basis of skin color, I acknowledge. But the primary continuing problem, today, is not skin color but poverty culture.

    Again, I grew up in a lower-class area, so I understand the challenges of growing up poor. At my high school it was not expected that everyone would attend college; quite the contrary. I had no one around to guide me in high school so that I could do the things that were necessary to get into college. I cut school a lot, did drugs and drank a lot of beer. I attended community college for one semester before dropping out, because I didn’t know what my goals were.

    By contrast, my kids have always attended schools where it is assumed that every student will attend college of one kind or another, and my wife and I have always pushed our kids to study hard and take the classes necessary to get into good colleges. This makes all the difference: the simple expectation on the part of parents and peers that studying hard and going to college is “normal”, makes students willing and able to do the work.

    This is lacking in poor neighborhoods, and therefore people who grow up in poor families are at a distinct disadvantage. But note that this is a *cultural* disadvantage, and therefore the way to address it is to address the problems of the *culture*. Blacks and other minorities who grow up in families and neighborhoods with high expectations, do just fine.

    I would be entirely in favor of programs that attempt to change the culture of poor, minority families and neighborhoods — and that of poor white families and neighborhoods too, for that matter. But the emphasis needs to be on instilling a culture of high expectations which are fulfilled by hard work and persistence. These are the cultural traits which distinguish Asians from other American minorities: Even granting that white racism is still a major force, it doesn’t prevent Asians from achieving educational and professional success. There is no reason why instilling the same cultural traits in black and other minority families can’t have the same result, as in fact it does when minorities are raised in families with those values.

    Simply giving money to black families, without instilling these cultural traits, does nothing to solve the underlying problems. Supposing we forcibly evacuated Newport Beach of all white and Asian families, and let all the black families from South Central Los Angeles move into those houses, this would do nothing to address the cultural deficits in those previously poor families. If we just continually provide money to poor families to provide for their material needs, without trying to change their culture, they and their descendants will never reach the point where they no longer need that assistance.

    The same would apply, obviously, if we moved poor white Appalachian families into Newport Beach. Within a couple of generations, Newport Beach would turn into a slum if parents were unable to teach succeeding generations the way to function and succeed in American society.

    If programs like Head Start actually work, then God bless them. But I tend to think that however hard a school tries, if the school’s expectations are not reinforced in the family then they can have no lasting effect. The key is to change the culture of the family.

    How to do this is obviously a problem. What do we do, take kids away and let the government raise them? Clearly not. But leaving kids in families with cultural problems is going to make change take a lot longer. For example, one of the main incentives in financially successful families, is that if you don’t work hard you may end up on welfare. But if kids are raised on welfare, how do you instill a fear of ending up on welfare?

    One thing I think is clearly needed, is to take kids out of poor neighborhoods and expose them to other places, so they can get an idea of what is available to them as a reward for hard work. Then they need to receive clear, unambiguous guidance, from grade school through high school, as to what they need to do to get into a good college and prepare for a good career. There should be frequent progress check-ups, so that they are caught as soon as they begin to slip. When the school work gets too hard, tutoring should be provided to make sure they keep up. All this may cost a lot but, conservative though I tend to be, I would consider it money well spent.

    But again, all this would require cooperation and reinforcement from families. Will parents welcome this kind of government (or other) intrusion into their responsibilities? Will they push their kids to fulfill the requirements and stay on track? If they don’t, can kids manage to succeed anyway?

    I don’t know whether or not this would work. But I can’t see any other way of reaching down into poor populations and changing the very culture from generation to generation. And if the culture doesn’t change, then the disadvantages of poverty won’t change.

  • Agellius

    Matt:

    Are you saying that Stuart was talking about a recession situation? Because he didn’t mention that. Maybe Reich’s documentary does; I don’t know since I haven’t seen it. In the context, it sounded to me like Stuart was recommending it as a general principle or a matter of ongoing policy (i.e. continuing the Great Society programs).

    If it were accepted as a general principle, then all we would have to do to guarantee a constantly thriving economy is constantly take money from rich people and give it to poor people. But a thriving economy is a growing economy. Simply shifting money around within an economy can’t provide growth. Growth in wealth comes from taking things out of the ground and making things.

    • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

      The point is, get the distribution right – and in practical terms, that means making sure wages and productivity growth track closely – and you get sustainable growth.

      • Agellius

        Not necessarily arguing with you here since I don’t claim economic expertise. But I wonder, if wage growth constantly tracked productivity growth, would that take away a company’s incentive to be always increasing productivity? In other words, it seems to me that the main incentive in increasing productivity is to increase profits. If profits are eaten up by wage increases, where’s the incentive to increase productivity?

        You might say the incentive is to keep up with your competition. But if your competition are foreign companies which are not tying wage increases to productivity growth, then they will be able to undercut your prices and drive you out of business, and then what happens to the workers?

        • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

          Higher productivity, generally speaking, has historically meant *both* higher wages *and* higher profits. It really is win/win.

  • Agellius

    Stuart and Matt:

    The other day I read the following in the Wall Street Journal:

    “Michael Feroli, an economist at JP Morgan Chase, said rising stock markets and rebounding home prices aren’t pumping up the economy the way they used to, largely because many of the gains are going to affluent Americans, who tend to save. Indeed, the so-called wealth effect — the extent to which rising wealth leads to consumption and growth — is roughly half as strong as that of previous economic expansions, he said.”

    This seems to support what Stuart said originally, that wealth going to the wealthy doesn’t tend to stimulate the economy as much because they tend to save.

    I will say that my home increasing in value isn’t helping me to stimulate the economy one bit. On the contrary, it’s causing me to spend less since I have to set aside more to pay my higher property taxes.