Building upon President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression, in the mid-1960s President Lyndon B. Johnson created the "Great Society." Under that name, social and economic legislation was passed by the federal government that aimed to better the lives of the poor and socially disadvantaged. It was during this period that the federal government set out famously to make “war on poverty,” a war that the government has yet to win.
Under the umbrella of the Great Society, the federal government passed civil rights laws; created Medicare, Medicaid, the Department for Housing and Urban Development, Headstart, and a variety of jobs and educational assistance programs; implemented food stamps; founded government cultural institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts; and enacted early environmental conservation laws. Many of these programs are still with us today.
President Johnson envisaged the Great Society as a place where "every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods." It marked a great change from the role of government envisaged by the Founders of the United States.
The degree to which President Johnson's measures to realize the Great Society succeeded and the reasons for their failures remain hotly debated to this day. Those defending the Great Society argue that the programs would have succeeded to a larger degree had the Vietnam War not diverted funding from them. Conservative and libertarian commentators find that many of the Great Society programs did not lack funding but instead suffered from improper implementation and inappropriate incentive structures creating long-term dependency on government. Beyond the efficiency arguments over government spending, they also question whether the Great Society fits within the proper role of the federal government.
One outcome of the Great Society, however, is least disputed: Since their inception, the entitlement programs created in the 1960s have increased the government's debt load to unsustainable levels. Indeed, to understand much of the debates about the role of the federal government today, one must understand the fundamental changes that took place during the New Deal and then the Great Society.
This topic page will provide you with a comprehensive introduction to the intellectual, historical and political roots, and the legacy of the Great Society. To learn about the New Deal and the Great Depression, click here.
The photo of President Johnson signing Medicare used for the topic page is in the public domain.