By Samuel Williford, Associate Consultant
Robert Caro’s latest work, “The Passage of Power”, came out recently, and documents the period of Lyndon B. Johnson’s career from 1960 to 1965. Having a chance to reflect on that period in American history has helped
me to realize how influential it is today, and how many of the themes
and issues brought up by reviewers are still contemporary problems.
I have yet to have a chance to read it (and if it is like other Caro tomes, it will take me a significant, but certainly worthwhile, amount of time to do so), but there are plenty of quality reviews out there, most notably the one done by former President Bill Clinton.
While there is still work to be done on the issue of civil rights and equality (and now not only for minorities, but other demographic groups in the nation), the unfulfilled opportunity and promise of “The Great Society” programs to eliminate poverty seems to be one of the biggest ‘what ifs?’ that strike me about that presidency. Many programs that are very well known were a result of this legislation, such as Medicare and Medicaid, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, which later became part of AmeriCorps), Head Start, the Department of Transportation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Job Corps.
It is a true shame that the “War on Poverty” quickly turned into the Vietnam War, and used up federal spending as well as political capital that could have furthered poverty reduction initiatives. As organizations across the country strive to provide a better way of life for the millions of Americans who live in poverty (including a project Fels Research and Consulting is undertaking with the Annie E. Casey Foundation), it is a persistent problem that the federal government has yet to find the right answer. The fallout from the Vietnam War as well as the relative failure of “The Great Society” to eliminate poverty (it did cut it in half in eight years) in America left many citizens disillusioned about the role of the federal government in such goals.
While most of the attention recently has gone to the distribution of wealth in this country between the rich and the middle class, there is still a significant portion of the country living in poverty in the richest nation on the planet. Whether a public sector or private sector solution is more appropriate has yet to be seen, but the impact of Johnson’s “Great Society” will certainly continue to shape the debate for the next few decades, as it has for the last few.