This weekend marks a half-century since President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the first series of bills into law that signified his Great Society/War on Poverty work. We won’t hear much about this, though. Not with 2015 being a benchmark year for commemorating and celebrating so much else. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Appomattox at 150, along with President Lincoln’s assassination, Juneteenth, and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, ending legal slavery (except for prisoners, of course). The trench warfare of World War I, and the Battle of Gallipoli (if one’s a real war trivia buff). Even the 30th anniversary of Back To The Future and the UN Conference on Women, which gathered in Nairobi, Kenya in the fall of 1985, will likely get more air time, cyber time, and ink than the first of LBJ’s Great Society programs.
But the Great Society was supposed to be a grand experiment and experience. It was supposed to wipe out poverty, end all legal forms of discrimination and segregation, and make the opportunity to achieve the modern American Dream of a middle-class life or better a reality for almost everyone. And it would’ve worked, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids, um, LBJ’s pesky decisions to go escalate the Vietnam War. The war cost $269 billion in 1970 dollars, or, $1.7 trillion in 2015 money.
Yet it’s not exactly true that it would’ve worked, or that it didn’t work. You see, despite the best efforts of an elitist, right-wing and ineffectual federal government corrupted by plutocrats and its military-industrial complex, the Great Society programs are still with us. For starters, there’s the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, the first one LBJ signed into law on April 11, fifty years ago on this date.
Without these laws, the modern era of educating millions of children whom states, colleges and universities and local school districts had shut out of K-12 and higher education wouldn’t have occurred at all. With federal government dollars and regulations, not to mention a foundation in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ESEA and HEA in its initial years provided real hope for “an equal opportunity for all.”
This wasn’t and isn’t just about Jim Crow and racial discrimination and segregation, whether de jure in the South or de facto via residential segregation and redlining in cities outsider the South. This became about opening doors for whole classes of children and adults that had been steel-reinforced-concrete walls before.
Technocrats and other public education crises gurus of the likes of Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and Roland Fryer would have us think that the $600 billion that states and the federal government via ESEA spend on public education each year is all wasteful spending. They say that we have about the same number of students in schools today (about 50 million) as we did in 1970.
Of course, they don’t tell the whole story, leaving out a lot of truth for us. For in my lifetime, students with disabilities (cognitive, physical, emotional) have gone from shutout to included in public schools as part of the Americans with Disabilities Acts of 1989 and 1992, and of course, ESEA. Students with language proficiency issues became part of the public education fabric under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision in 1974, with funds provided out of ESEA. Charter schools, magnet programs, school counseling, and so many other things that have made public education more inclusive and also more expensive wouldn’t have been possible without ESEA. Meaning, technocrats, that public education was severely underfunded and exclusionary prior to 1965.
The HEA hasn’t had the same effect, primarily because we as a society tend to think of higher education as a luxury and not a right, and have fought hard to make many colleges and universities the exclusive domain of “the worthy.” Still, without HEA and the Pell Grants (named after former Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI, 1961-97), the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, the Direct Student Loan Program, and the Supplemental Loan Program, a whole generation of low-income and middle-income families wouldn’t have been able to send their kids to college. They were often the first in their families, as Blacks, as women, as Black and Latino women, as working-class Whites with only a steel mill or automobile plant in their future. At least back then.
There’s also the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Head Start program, and Congress passing Medicaid and Medicare, providing health coverage for the elderly and deeply poor for the first time. And all in 1965.
What does all of this mean in 2015? That despite the mountains of books written on LBJ and the failures of the War on Poverty and the Great Society, that these programs worked and work in ameliorating poverty and expanding opportunities for all, even across racial lines. Would they have been more effective with more investment, especially in those initial years, when Vietnam became more of a priority? No doubt.
That’s just it, though. Most Americans — who despite the fears of Ted Cruz and Rudy Giuliani, remain White — didn’t care about poverty and racism and the structures that supported it then, and they mostly don’t care now. They want Congress to work, just not on issues that would permanently unbalance the social hierarchy that they’ve assumed as their birthright for two centuries.
Hence the constant one-two punch of a relationship they see with poverty and those with black and brown skin. Hence the constant carping about taxes and needless spending on food stamps and welfare, even though the true face of government assistance in the US has always been a haggard White one. Hence the constant media tropes about hard work and so-called self-made men worth billions making their money without holding a college degree, who somehow can tell the rest of us how to live. The Great Society, for all of LBJ’s foibles and its weaknesses, remains a great legacy of what America could be, and at times, has been, but overall, refuses to be.