At one time, academic historians were in general agreement that President Lyndon Johnson would be recognized as the greatest of all presidents. A few funerals later, he's probably fallen to the stature of a minor post-Rooseveltian. Perhaps one reason is that the Great Society's record is not what the true believers would have others believe. I am on record as attributing much of the now-missed-by-self-styled-"progressives" unionized, monopolized, and cartelized 1950s to the unusual position the U.S. economy enjoyed after World War II.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was born 100 years ago today. Besides Franklin Roosevelt, his record as a progressive Democrat is unsurpassed. Thanks to his leadership and passion, Congress enacted Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, Head Start, the Job Corps, legal services for the poor, and countless other pocketbook measures that helped millions out of poverty and reinforced a secure middle class. And Johnson took immense risks to pass the three landmark civil-rights laws. It is not an exaggeration to say that without Johnson's leadership, Barack Obama would not be accepting the Democratic nomination for president this week.
But here in Denver, where podium time has been found for a mind-numbing array of obscure speakers, the day will pass without ceremony or acknowledgment. Why? In part because for many Democrats, Johnson's greatness on domestic achievements has an asterisk -- the Vietnam War, a divisive debacle too reminiscent of the Iraq War.
Beyond that, the advocate of the Great Society has to address the more rapid decrease in poverty before the Great Society than after. This commentary suggests the criterion for the poverty rate is flawed, but it presents the diagram. Scroll down to "Poverty rates by race, 1959-2004." This essay, by Brookings's Isabel Sawhill, addresses the controversies.
The failure of the aggregate poverty rate to decline in the seventies, and its subsequent rise in the eighties, suggest to some that the War on Poverty launched by the federal government in the midsixties failed. Indeed, the incidence of poverty was as high in the late eighties as it was in the late sixties, and the average poverty rate for the eighties was 2 percentage points higher than the average for the seventies. Researchers have suggested a number of plausible explanations for these trends, including changes in the composition of households, slower economic growth, the failure of government training programs to increase the skills of the poor, and the rise of a permanently poor urban underclass. Some also argue that the income transfer policies designed to alleviate poverty have themselves helped perpetuate it. Although all of these factors have likely contributed to the problem, the relative importance of each remains somewhat unclear.There are no easy explanations. It is, however, misleading to suggest that the Great Society "helped millions out of poverty and reinforced a secure middle class."
For further reading, the Institute for Research on Poverty has provided a compendium of recent research under an "Understanding Poverty" rubric.