Great Society, legislative program proposed by United States President Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969).
In a speech on May 22, 1964, Johnson stated, “We have the opportunity to move not only toward the
rich society and the powerful society, but toward the Great Society that demands an end to poverty
and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.” The “Great Society” attempted to
address problems in such areas as health care, education, housing, jobs, and rights for minorities.
Johnson’s vision was far-reaching. It was framed by his desire to leave a positive imprint on the nation
and his commitment to helping disadvantaged Americans secure a better life. It developed from both
his roots in Texas, where rural poverty was prevalent, and his sympathy for populism, a political
movement in the late 19th century in which farmers struggled to improve their economic situation.
Johnson became the 36th president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963.
When he took office, he immediately moved to calm the nation and to provide a sense of continuity
and stability. He kept most of Kennedy’s cabinet and advisers. He promised to support the social and
economic objectives of President Kennedy’s New Frontier and to secure congressional passage of
many of the New Frontier legislative proposals. Johnson won the initial support of Congress, whose
members wanted to show the American people that they could work with the new president in a time
During Johnson’s first year as president, the “War on Poverty” was perhaps the most visible piece of
legislation that emerged from the willingness of Congress to respond to the new president’s Great
Society agenda. It became law on August 20, 1964. It funded the creation and operation of
Community Action Agencies in urban and rural communities. These agencies were to be governed by
low-income residents of poverty areas and would thus empower the poor to find solutions to their
housing, job, education, health, and community service problems. The War on Poverty provided grants
for many diverse state and local efforts to reduce poverty, including Head Start, a program to provide
early education; the Job Corps, a youth employment plan; and a number of work-training initiatives.
In November 1964 Johnson was reelected by a landslide, and he pushed more Great Society programs
through Congress. Over 400 separate pieces of Great Society legislation were enacted between 1964
and 1968. They touched almost every aspect of the lives of poor people and minorities. For example,
Congress established the Medicare program in 1965 to provide medical services to the elderly;
Medicaid in 1965 to enable the poor to obtain medical care; the Elementary and Secondary Education
Acts of 1965 to provide grants to inner city school districts to strengthen their educational programs;
the Housing Acts of 1965 and 1968 to subsidize the construction, rehabilitation, and leasing of housing
for low-income households; the Work Incentive Program, established by amendments to the Social
Security Act in 1967, to provide resources for the poor to become self-supporting; the Voting Rights
Act of 1965 to allow federal enforcement of laws to assure the ability of minorities to register and
vote; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or
national origin in the sale, rental, advertising, or financing of housing.
The hundreds of Great Society initiatives became difficult to coordinate so others were passed in an
effort to solve this problem. For example, the Model Cities program was enacted to foster coordinated
neighborhood revitalization efforts. Similarly, the Concentrated Employment program was passed to
foster coordinated job training and job placement efforts. Both of these programs required local
communities to develop comprehensive plans that would reflect strategic and coordinated use of
relevant federal aid, and both promised communities block grants that were relatively free of federal
restrictions as to how the funds could be spent.
By 1967 Johnson was having difficulty sustaining popular support for the Great Society programs. His
popularity had declined as a result of the fierce national debate over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam
War (1959-1975). Even some who had been early supporters of Great Society programs began to
criticize them: they had grown too fast and created large bureaucracies; they allowed the federal
government too much influence in local affairs and created tension between local government and
citizen groups; they were difficult to implement to solve problems; and they were wasteful.
As the presidential election of 1968 approached, President Johnson announced to the nation on March
31, 1968, that he would not seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. He would instead
spend the rest of his presidency trying to end the war in Vietnam.
Clearly, Great Society programs helped many needy people secure jobs, a better education, improved
health care, and housing. Large numbers of elderly particularly benefited from increases in Social
Security and better health care provided by Medicare. In addition, the civil rights legislation helped
But the Great Society programs did not achieve President Johnson’s objectives. They did not end
poverty, nor did they eliminate racial discrimination. Many supporters suggest that the Great Society
did not meet expectations because of the Vietnam War. They argue that the need to fund the war
made it difficult to provide the money to assure complete success of Great Society initiatives.
Critics of the Great Society disagree. In their view, Great Society programs, both during the Johnson
administration and during the administration of President Richard Nixon.(1969-1974), received
relatively large amounts of federal dollars. They argue that the impact of the Great Society was
diminished because funds were spent for multiple, sometimes competing, purposes without any firm
direction. For example, some funds were granted to programs like Model Cities to help renew older,
distressed neighborhoods, while other funds were granted to programs like urban renewal that often
hurt older, distressed neighborhoods.
Some scholars indicate that the Great Society was doomed to failure because America did not know
the causes of poverty. Good things happened if the Great Society policymakers guessed right about
the causes of a problem and very little happened if they guessed wrong.
A number of observers maintain that the mixed impact of the Great Society programs was due in part
to the American public not being uniformly committed to helping the poor. These people believe that
Johnson’s view of the United States as one national community with a shared consensus on how to
end poverty was mistaken. Consequently, they contend, congressional support for the Great Society
was never very strong, and it lessened considerably as soon as Great Society programs became
The debate regarding the Great Society and its effectiveness is now over 30 years old; it will likely
continue for many more years. While there is disagreement concerning the Great Society’s impact,
there is little disagreement concerning the generosity of President Johnson’s vision of the Great
Society and the uniqueness of its agenda. Both the vision and the agenda remain important in that
they provide the nation with many far-reaching, if still unmet, social policy goals.