Remembering the Great Society:
Addressing poverty and hunger in America
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / September 28, 2011
On Monday, September 26, the Reverend Jesse Jackson visited Ohio University, located at the northern edge of Appalachia. President Lyndon Johnson had introduced his vision of a “Great Society” in 1964 at this site and Jackson was returning 47 years later to call for the establishment of a White House commission to address poverty and hunger in America.
Jackson pointed out that Athens County, Ohio, where he spoke, represented “ground zero” as to poverty in America today. Thirty-two percent of county residents live in poverty.
The fact that increased poverty is a national problem was underscored in a September 13 press release from the United States Census Bureau. The Census Bureau reported that 46.2 million people lived below the poverty line in 2010, the highest number in 52 years. In 2010, 15.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty, the highest percent since 1993. The poverty line for a family of four was $22,314.
The New York Times (September 14, 2011) quoted Professor Lawrence Katz, economist, who said that “this is truly a lost decade. We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”
In a press release, the Census Bureau identified some additional data which reflects the economic status of large numbers of Americans:
- The number of Americans below the poverty line in 2010 increased by 900,000 over 2009.
- Proportions of Black and Hispanic citizens living in poverty increased from 2009 to 2010. Black poverty rose to 27 percent from 25 percent; Hispanic poverty 26 percent from 25 percent.
- 48 million Americans, 18 to 64 years of age, did not work at all in 2010, up from 45 million in 2009.
- Median income declines were greatest among the young, ages 15 to 24, who experienced a 9 percent decline between 2009 and 2010.
- Childhood poverty rates rose from 20.7 percent in 2009 to 22 percent in 2010.
Timothy Smeeding, Director, Institute for Research and Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, was quoted in the New York Times article: “We’re risking a new underclass. Young, less-educated adults, mainly men, can’t support their children and form stable families because they are jobless.”
Arloc Sherman, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, reminded readers that the level of poverty was higher and median income was lower in 2007 than 2001.
In this economic context, it was surprising that the calls by Reverend Jackson for a new Great Society largely were ignored by the liberal blogosphere as well as most of the mainstream media.
One impressive exception was an interview on Up with Chris Hayes, MSNBC, on Sunday, September 25. On this program, Jackson pointed out that if it had not been for President Johnson’s disastrous Vietnam War policy he would have been recognized as one of the transformational presidents in American history.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has pointed out in an interesting essay entitled “Race, Class and Economic Justice” that the Johnson programs, the “Great Society,” and its “War on Poverty,” were grounded in the civil rights struggle for jobs and justice. When LBJ’s program got mired in the escalating war in Vietnam, Dr. Martin Luther King launched the “Poor People’s Campaign.”
Both the Great Society and the Poor People’s Campaign need to be revisited as young people, workers, men and women of all races and classes, mobilize along Wall Street and in virtually every city and town in America to demand economic and social justice. And as the Reverend Jackson reminded students and citizens of Athens County on September 13, LBJ’s program was a comprehensive one linking government and community groups. Among its major achievements the following need to be celebrated:
- The Food Stamp Act (1964) provided low income families with access to adequate food.
- The Economic Opportunity Act (1964) created the Job Corps, VISTA, and other community-based programs.
- The Tax Reduction Act (1964) cut income tax rates for low-income families.
- The Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawed discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
- The Wilderness Preservation Act (1964) protected over 9 million acres of national forests from developers.
- The Elementary and Secondary School Act (1965) provided federal aid to schools with low-income students, including the establishment of the Head Start program.
- Amendments to the Social Security Act (1965) established Medicare for retirees and Medicaid for low-income health care recipients.
- The Voting Rights Act (1965) ended racial discrimination in voting.
- The Water Quality Act (1965) required states to clean up polluted rivers and lakes.
- The Omnibus Housing Act (1965) provided for low income housing.
- The Higher Education Act (1965) created scholarships for college students.
- The School Lunch and Child Nutrition Act (1968) was expanded to provide food to low-income children in schools and day care facilities.
Between 1964 and 1968 the United States Congress passed 226 of 252 bills into law. Federal funds transferred to the poor increased from $9.9 billion in 1960 to $30 billion in 1968. One million workers received job training from these programs and 2 million children experienced pre-school Head Start programs by 1968.
Progressives should revisit this history and tell the story of the successes and failures of the 1960s vision and programs and work for the fulfillment of the dream articulated by Dr. King and LBJ. Both visions presupposed the connection between government, communities, and activists.
And, it should be made clear that the Great Society floundered, not because of errors in the vision or programs, or because of “government bureaucrats,” or because the “free market” could serve human needs better, but because of a disastrous imperial war that sapped the support for vibrant and needed domestic programs.
Slogans about Money for Jobs and Justice, Not for War, constitute the lessons for today. The Reverend Jesse Jackson should be supported in his efforts to revive the vision of the Great Society.
[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical — and that’s also the name of his new book which can be found at Lulu.com. Read more of Harry Targ’s articles on The Rag Blog.]