Friday, February 22, 2013

The Sad Legacy of the 'Great Society' and the Failure of Meaningful Equality in America

The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Reading Sonia Sanchez’s ‘A Letter to Dr Martin Luther King’ got me thinking about the failure to bring about meaningful socio-economic changes in the United States. Sanchez gives voice to the frustration and disappointment that many felt in the decades following the 1960’s. Understanding the circumstances that stalled the progress of the Civil Rights Movements and created the frustration voiced by Sanchez provides important insight into contemporary debates over spending and social welfare.
Looking back, we see that the de jure progress that was achieved in 1960’s was not sufficient to bring about de facto improvement in people’s lives. In truth, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were never meant to stand alone. President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ legislation was meant to be a concerted effort by the federal government to fight poverty and improve the standard of living of all Americans. The ‘Great Society’ was meant to pick up where the ‘New Deal’ left off and fulfill the incomplete goals of President Roosevelt. The legislation passed as part of the ‘Great Society’ was, in my opinion, the most significant effort our country has ever made to live up to the ideology of freedom and equality established by our founding documents. It was an ambitious program that sought to ensure civil rights, end poverty, ensure healthcare and education for all, protect consumers, empower labor, preserve the environment, and much more.  
President Clinton signing the Welfare Reform Act which
replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the
more restrictive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
The weakness of the ‘Great Society’, however, was that it was a program inherently dependent on Johnson’s massive 1964 coalition, which began to splinter as opposition to the Vietnam War grew throughout the 1960’s. By 1968, Johnson’s progressivism was tarnished by the war and conservatives were able to take political advantage of the fracturing Democratic party to usher in an era of conservatism in the United States that slowly dismantled many of the most meaningful ‘Great Society’ programs meant to combat poverty. Things such as major investment in urban mass transit, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) were significant and effective anti-poverty efforts in the ‘Great Society’ that have been either ignored or completely dismantled in the decades since the 1960’s.
Much of what remains of the ‘Great Society’ today were originally included in the program in order to make it more palatable to middle-class Americans and not part of the major anti-poverty efforts. The fact that things such as the the National Endowment for the Art and PBS (programs that I think are valuable in their own rights) have managed to survive due to vocal support from liberals, while programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children were dismantled (under President Clinton), exemplifies the sad legacy of the ‘Great Society’. A truly ambitious effort to combat poverty was allowed to be dismantled in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s in exchange for the preservation of many of the least ambitious aspects of this program.
Some of the important anti-poverty programs of the ‘Great Society’ do remain. Social Security and Medicare remain some of the most successful anti-poverty programs in history. They have kept millions of seniors out of poverty and provided basic medical care to some of the country's poorest. Even these programs, however, are the target of conservatives who continue to seek to dismantle the legacy of the ‘Great Society’. As we debate our country's fiscal future and the role of government today, Social Security and Medicare are constantly under fire. For the first time since President Johnson, however, we have a president who promotes a truly progressive view of the role of government in fighting poverty. President Obama not only seeks to preserve the integrity Social Security and Medicare, he promotes a view of government in which fighting poverty is an active priority. This historical implications of this are not insignificant. Not even under Presidents Carter and Clinton were progressive views of government promoted in the mainstream, as each played a role in dismantling the Great Society.
President Obama his 2013 State of the Union address,
calls for an increase in the federal minimum wage,
expansion of access to pre-k education for children,
and for preserving Medicare and Social Security
The challenge of today’s debate over spending and the role of government is to not get wrapped up in debates over the size of government. Even though the ‘Great Society’ was largely dismantled in the conservative era from the 1970’s to the 2000’s, government spending on ‘social’ programs did not decrease. The size of government continued to grow significantly from President Nixon to President Reagan to President Bush Jr. What occurred though, was ‘social’ spending gradually shifted away from fighting poverty to programs that largely benefited the American upper and upper-middle classes. Despite the talk about the small size of social spending in the United States relative places such to Europe and Japan, America ranks 5th in the world in terms of total resources devoted to ‘welfare’. The problem is that our ‘welfare’ programs often come in the form of homeowner tax credits and other programs that do little to actually fight poverty. As we debate the role of government today we should keep in mind the legacy of the ‘Great Society’ and how it was never truly given the chance to combat poverty as intended. If we are to bring about true equality in our country, we will have to reevaluate how we spend our ‘welfare’ resources and how we prioritize what programs are most valuable to our society.

Note: If you are interested in US spending on ‘social welfare’ I would highly recommend Professor Kimberly Morgan’s article in Foreign Affairs, America’s Misguided Approach to Social Welfare’. Professor Morgan teaches International Politics here at GW. Her article provides the most insightful analysis I have seen of the problems with social spending in the United States. She goes beyond the debate about the size of government, and looks at the inefficient ways we direct our social spending. It is a very good article, I cannot recommend it enough  

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