Great Society Legislation

Great Society Legislation

Great Society Legislation


Great Society, the legislative programme in the United States proposed by President Lyndon Johnson. 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 healthcare, education, housing, jobs, and rights for minorities.

Johnson’s vision was far-reaching. 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.

Great Society Legislation
Great Society Legislation

Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. He promised to support the social and economic objectives of 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 work with the new president in a time of crisis.


During Johnson’s first year as president, the Economic Opportunity Act-better known as 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 programme to provide early education; the Job Corps, a youth employment plan; and a number of work-training initiatives.

In November 1964, Johnson was re-elected by a landslide, and he pushed more Great Society programmes 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 Medicare to provide medical services to the elderly and Medicaid to enable the poor to obtain medical care in 1965; the Elementary and Secondary Education Acts of 1965 to provide grants to inner city school districts to strengthen their educational programmes; 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, colour, religion, or national origin in the sale, rental, advertising, or financing of housing.


The hundreds of Great Society initiatives became 1967, Johnson was having difficulty sustaining popular support for the Great Society programmes. His popularity had declined as a result of US involvement in the Vietnam War. Even some who had been early supporters of Great Society programmes 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, and they were wasteful.


Clearly, Great Society programmes helped many needy people secure jobs, a better education, improved healthcare, and housing. Large numbers of the elderly in particular benefited from increases in social security and better health care provided by Medicare. In addition, the civil rights legislation helped many minorities.

But the Great Society programmes 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 programmes, both during the Johnson administration and during the administration of President Richard Nixon, received relatively large amounts of federal support. They argue that the impact of the Great Society was diminished because funds were spent for multiple, sometimes competing, purposes without any firm direction.

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 programmes 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 programmes became controversial.

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