Thematic Window: The Great Society close window
The Great Society


When John Gardner became the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, he was joining President Lyndon Johnson not just as a cabinet member, but as the engineer of his ambitious agenda of social reform known as the "Great Society."

In the wake of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, a wave of sympathy and public support enabled President Johnson to pass a number of Kennedy Administration proposals including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Building on this momentum, Johnson introduced his own vision for America: "the Great Society" -- in which America ended poverty, promoted equality, improved education, rejuvenated cities, and protected the environment. This became the blueprint for the most far-reaching agenda of domestic legislation since the New Deal -- legislation that has had a profound effect on American society.

Perhaps driven by his own humble beginnings, Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" as central to building the Great Society. In 1960, despite the prosperity of the times, almost one-quarter of all American families were living below the poverty line, and entire regions of the country, like central Appalachia, were bypassed by the economic growth of the postwar years. Moreover, technological advances in industry were also changing job requirements for American workers. The good-paying, unskilled jobs of the past were disappearing, and those without education and skills were being left behind.

The first piece of Great Society legislation, the Economic Opportunity Act 1964, tried to give people tools to get out of poverty. The bill created a Job Corps similar to the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps; a domestic peace corps; a system for vocational training; and Head Start, a pre-school program designed to prepare children for success in public school. The bill also funded community action programs and extended loans to small businessmen and farmers.

Johnson's landslide re-election victory over Republican opponent Barry Goldwater in 1964 added to the momentum of Great Society reforms. Over the next four years, Johnson enacted a flurry of legislation. One of the most ambitious efforts was the establishment of Medicare to provide health care for America's senior citizens.

In 1964, 44 percent of seniors had no health care coverage, and with the medical bills that come with older age, this propelled many seniors into poverty. In fact, more than one in three Americans over 65 were living below the poverty line -- more than double the rate of those under 65. Medicare was an important and big change in American health care -- it was called the "biggest management job since the invasion of Normandy" -- and it was up to John Gardner to make it work. He helped shepherd Medicare to reality, and the results have been extraordinary: virtually all seniors now have health care, and the poverty rate for the elderly has fallen to approximately one in ten -- a rate lower than that of the general population. Along with Medicare, the Johnson Administration established the Medicaid program to provide health care to the poor.

Education reform was also an important part of Johnson's Great Society, and a particular passion of Gardner's. In 1964, 8 million American adults had not finished 5 years in school; more than 20 million had not finished eight years; and almost a quarter of the nation's population, around 54 million people, hadn't finished high school. In 1965, Congress passed the groundbreaking Elementary and Secondary Education Act which for the first time provided federal funding for education below the college level passed the Higher Education Act, which created a National Teachers Corps and provided financial assistance to students wishing to attend college.

Urban renewal and conservation was the third major component of the Great Society. Ever since the end of World War II, cities faced a shortage of good, affordable housing, At the same time, the suburbanization of America along with the changing economy meant that many businesses began to leave city centers, an exodus that was accelerated by urban rioting that began in earnest after the Watts riot in 1965 in Los Angeles, and continued throughout Johnson's term. As part of a response, Johnson signed the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 that established the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and expanded funding for public housing. In addition, he provided aid to cities to rebuild blighted areas.

Johnson's ambitions for a Great Society were checked by his ambitions in Vietnam. The cost of the war in Vietnam along with the costs of his domestic programs strained the economy. Moreover, as the war became more and more unpopular, Johnson lost the political capital needed to continue these reforms. Critics of the Great Society also charged that these programs just created bureaucracies and threw money at problems without producing results. Still others rejected the notion that the federal government should be undertaking these tasks at all. Nevertheless, the impact of the Great Society in many areas is undisputed as political leaders today still wrestle with how to deal with these issues of poverty, health care, and education.

close window