Fifty years ago, in 1966, a political revolution emerged in America that would have a massive impact on millions of families and marriages. The man behind it was President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who reached the White House amid a national tragedy but grabbed the reins of power quickly and purposefully, bent on transforming the country. Though he is lionized in popular culture these days, it is worth asking whether the celebratory tone accurately reflects the results of his revolution, at least in terms of his massive Great Society.
Earlier this year HBO transformed a hit Broadway play into a television special lauding Johnson’s 1964 campaign and early White House tenure. The riveting narrative begins with the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas, which catapulted Johnson into the White House and set him upon his momentous course. The program’s title, All the Way, comes from Johnson’s most memorable campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ,” when he ran against Arizona’s Republican senator, Barry Goldwater.
Similarly, a play called The Great Society, which premiered in 2014 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is heading to Broadway in 2017. Johnson is the star of that narrative as well.
The name of Johnson’s massive domestic agenda was taken from a now-forgotten British professor named Graham Wallas, who in 1914 outlined a series of domestic reforms he called the Great Society. Wallas’s slogan entered America’s lexicon as one of the country’s most famous political phrases and became inseparable from Johnson’s legacy.
In 1964 Johnson went to the University of Michigan to deliver one of the most consequential speeches of his presidency, unveiling the Great Society programs that would become the largest, most intrusive expansion of federal power ever.
“The challenge of the next half-century is whether we have the wisdom to use wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization,” declared Johnson. “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 key word here was “upward,” for Johnson viewed his program as synonymous with progress itself.
The expansionist spirit of the Great Society made Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s and the progressive-era initiatives of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson of the early 20th century appear relatively modest by comparison. Indeed, Johnson’s Ann Arbor revolution represented the most far-reaching legislative transformation in our history. How did it happen? And, looking back over the past half century, what were the results of Johnson’s vast promises? Is this a legacy that justifies the celebratory regard seen in the popular culture?
Johnson and his staff lost no time after Kennedy’s murder in designing their vast governmental expansion, to be financed by America’s post-World War II abundance of wealth and prosperity. “I am a Roosevelt New Dealer,” declared Johnson the day after the assassination. “Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste.”
When Johnson came to office, Americans overwhelmingly trusted the federal government to expand benignly across the continent. World War II had generated widespread confidence in what Washington could achieve. The Johnson administration leveraged that confidence by radically altering the constitutional limits on legislation, regulation, and spending. The Johnson administration shifted the governance of the country from a constitutional republic rooted largely in localism to an opaque, vast regulatory state rooted inside the Beltway.
What the president outlined was a cornucopia of new programs and funding mechanisms that would seamlessly seep into almost every facet of life and with a special emphasis on urban America. Never before had the government embraced such an obligation to inject itself into the lives of older Americans; into the education system at every level, from primary schooling to higher learning; and, perhaps most importantly, into the lives and personal decisions of the most vulnerable families in the country. Johnson altered forever the relationship between the average citizen and the national government.
Just as the affluence and suburbanization of middle-class America was growing and expanding in ways that seemed boundless at the time, Johnson’s vision was to create an attendant kaleidoscopic role for Washington. Power shifted inexorably from the people to Washington’s managerial class, a growing blob of a bureaucracy. And there was another leverage point that made Johnson’s Great Society possible, though it wasn’t really related in philosophical terms. That was the great, post-Civil War legacy of Jim Crow laws in the South and blatant racial discrimination that mocked the great American hallmark of equality before the law. Growing numbers of Americans believed that it was time to end this blot of national hypocrisy, and that the long arm of the federal government was needed to accomplish it. Johnson set out to leverage that sentiment to enact the most far-reaching civil-rights legislation in a century, including the 1964 anti-discrimination legislation and the politically potent Voting Rights Act of 1965. Thus did this overdue agenda increase the nation’s comfort level with a huge power transfer to Washington that Johnson then exploited to push through his revolutionary program to eradicate poverty and pull up the nation from above.
Johnson’s Great Society garnered strong support not only from most Democrats but also from large numbers of Republicans, including the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who embraced the philosophy of big government.
The promises emanating from the nation’s capital sometimes verged on the mystical: cities large and small would be built and rebuilt with the federal government as the grand marshal of the funding parade. The poor would no longer be poor. Public schools would be gleaming and bright. Families would feel unprecedented stability under Uncle Sam’s benevolent attentions. The promises seemed endless.
Ironically, Democratic liberals expressed the most initial misgivings about Johnson’s vision. But they soon climbed aboard what quickly became a governmental gravy train of federal spending built upon the central warning of the Great Society: that if the government was not expanded to address these perceived problems, national chaos would ensue, especially in the urban core. Racial tension had been building since the late 1950s. Johnson portrayed his Great Society as the antidote to this brewing chaos.
As Robert Caro and Randall Woods have demonstrated in their histories of the Johnson era, the president intimidated feckless members of Congress into supporting his new federal leviathan. He had mastered the Capitol Hill “game” during his long tenure as one of the most powerful majority leaders in Senate history. Members of Congress buckled under the weight of his demands and deals. The result was that 1964 generated more new legislation than just about any other year in our history. It was propelled forward by Johnson’s dynamic personality, outsized ambition and an an almost palpable intensity captured so brilliantly and evocatively in HBO’s All the Way.
It all began with the Economic Opportunity Act, which created Johnson’s matrix of “war on poverty” programs, swiftly passed and signed into law. So was a major tax cut, one of President Kennedy’s main economic goals, which help fund the vast governmental expansion, at least for a time. Even before the tax cut became law, America enjoyed a remarkable economic boom, and between 1963 and 1966 GDP expanded by 6 percent. That growth provided a steady funding stream for Johnson’s program.
Johnson sailed to victory over Goldwater in that year’s presidential campaign, crushing him with 61 percent of the popular vote. Goldwater only won six states. This landslide election also gave Johnson dominance over both the House and Senate, giving him a pathway to passage of more legislative initiatives, including the most far-reaching education bill ever.
A beaming Johnson signed into law both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act, federalizing public and private education in ways that had been unthinkable in the American experience until that time.
Following those victories, Johnson and his team were the architects of two new massive entitlement programs that would provide health care for older Americans and for the poor, Medicare and Medicaid. Never before had there existed a permanent, immovable role for Washington in Americans’ health care coverage.
Medicare had about 20 million people enrolled by 1966; there are 60 million today; there will be 80 million within two decades. Medicaid began with 4 million beneficiaries; today, that number is 70 million.
Johnson didn’t stop there. New programs emerged in a steady stream—food stamps, arts and humanities agencies, environmental edicts, a new Department of Transportation, and a new Department of Housing and Urban Development. The modern welfare state was born.
Then came the reckoning. The funding projections on how much the Great Society would cost turned out to be wildly inaccurate. A half-century later, the Great Society’s price tag had ballooned to a staggering $22 trillion. The annual cost of the entitlements alone, when coupled with Social Security and Obamacare, had helped contribute to a national debt surpassing $20 trillion—more than 100 percent of GDP—and growing. Leaving aside the monetary cost, it also has become clear that these programs have contributed to a steady erosion in American family life. This is perhaps the most dismal legacy of the Johnson years, and a sad testament to the confidence of social planners that expansive government could strengthen families and marriages.
In spring 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Labor Department sociologist who later would become an adviser to presidents of both political parties and a U.S. senator, shared with President Johnson and his team a report he had compiled on the condition of black families in America. Moynihan concluded that poverty and urban stress were contributing to the fracturing of families, resulting in 25 percent of all black children being born out of wedlock. Moynihan called it a crisis.
Johnson incorporated Moynihan’s study into a speech at Washington’s Howard University that suggested that poor black families should be given a guaranteed, government-provided income. Johnson and his policy team believed that expanding government funding for broken families would help save them. Instead, it incentivized single mothers to remain unmarried. By expanding welfare state programs to Americans who were already experiencing serious stress and hardship, it deepened the problems of illegitimacy, fatherless homes, and other cultural problems. Millions of Americans soon were engulfed in permanent chaos and dysfunction. A plague of fatherlessness ensued, with nearly 72 percent of all American black children being born to single mothers by 2015.
Did it have to be this way? When Johnson came to office in late 1963, more than 90 percent of American babies were in homes with married parents. The 1960 census showed that nearly 9 of every 10 children from birth to 18 years of age lived with married parents. While illegitimacy had grown to about 8 percent from 4 percent between 1940 and 1965, it then exploded. By 1990 the rate would be nearly 30 percent.
Today more than 40 percent of all Americans are born to unmarried mothers. More than 3 of every 10 children live in some arrangement other than a two-parent home. Cohabitation continues to climb, and has become the acceptable norm for millions of Americans. The most recent Census Bureau report says barely half of all American children are living with both married biological parents.
Marriage rejection rooted in the 1960s has real ramifications: among adults who are 34 years old or younger, some 46 percent have never been married.
This syndrome had perhaps its most profound impact in some of America’s most difficult neighborhoods, where unparalleled family breakdown is, in part, the sad result of Lyndon Johnson’s well-meaning miscalculations. We are living through the collapse of the traditional family and marriage as the norm and expectation for millions of Americans, especially in low-income communities.
Writer Myron Magnet observed that the “dream’’ of the Great Society has become a “nightmare’’ for the very people that the Great Society was designed to help. Poverty and single-mother childbearing were both higher after the Great Society than before, and the number of intact families has declined significantly.
In a major analysis of Johnson’s war on poverty, the political economist Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute concluded: “The official poverty picture looks even worse the more closely one focuses on it … the poverty rate for all families was no lower in 2012 than in 1966. The poverty rate for American children under 18 is now higher than it was then. The poverty rate for the working-age population (18-64) is also higher now than back then. The poverty rate for whites is higher now than it was back then. Poverty rates for Hispanic Americans … likewise are higher today than back then.”
As Ronald Reagan, who was California governor during some of the Johnson years, said, “In the 60s, we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
The consequences are profound. Reliable sociologists and demographers, liberal and conservative alike, concur that children from broken family structures are far much more likely to become involved in crime as dependence on government grows.
Writes Eberstadt: “Since the launch of the War on Poverty, criminality in America has taken an unprecedented upward turn within our nation. Although reported rates of crime victimization—including murder and other violent crimes—have been falling for two decades, the percentage of Americans behind bars continued to rise.’’ He adds that, as of year-end 2010, more than 5 percent of all black men in their 40s and nearly 7 percent of those in their 30s were in state or federal prisons.
James Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation, who has studied urban issues for decades and cogently analyzed the 1960s, has concluded: “The scores of burned-out, crime-ridden, and bankrupt cities in America today must be counted as part of the legacy of the Great Society.”
Don’t expect HBO or Broadway to produce sequels on Johnson that concentrate on the Great Society’s social upheavals, inflicted most harshly on those families who were the focus of LBJ’s good intentions. What is needed now in America’s national life is a national commitment to the regeneration and renewal of marriage and the family, to undo some of the Great Society legacy. This restoration would be rooted not in more government but rather in a civil society matrix of churches and private-sector local initiatives unencumbered by overweening managerial elites directed from Washington.
The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector writes: “Able-bodied, non-elderly adult recipients in all federal welfare programs should be required to work, prepare for work, or at least look for a job as a condition of receiving benefits.”
The largest historical question is whether we have the moral imagination and national resolve for such an American renaissance? I believe we do. A great nation deserves nothing less than our rededication to the smallest but most powerful element of civilization, the nuclear family.
Timothy S. Goeglein is the vice president for external relations at Focus on the Family. A version of this essay appeared in Focus on the Family’s Citizen magazine.