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The Great Society: Social Justice and "Band-Aid" Politics

This essay defines issues that led to the failure of 1960s Great Society legislation and the demise of progressive reform.

Structural problems in the free market system, mentalities among the poor, and middle class misconceptions about the issue of poverty explain both the increase of poverty in post World War II America and the inability of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs to eradicate this social problem. The free market system created poverty as the rest of society progressed towards affluence. Great Society programs failed because they did not address deficiencies in the free market system. Postwar poverty created a demoralized mentality among the poor that contributed to their ongoing plight. Great Society legislation ultimately promoted entitlement programs, which created a lethargic mentality among the poor that kept many on welfare. Postwar middle class misconceptions about poverty virtually denied the existence of the poor, contributing to their destitution. Similarly, middle class misconceptions about poverty during the Great Society period led to the rejection of the programs and an end to further legislation.

Structural problems in the capitalist system explain the increase of poverty in postwar America. As the rest of society moved towards prosperity, many fell into hardship. Older industries scaled down jobs as technology became more efficient. The result was joblessness for a uniquely specialized workforce. In 1962, American socialist Michael Harrington described the dilemma of laid off coal miners, who had become largely unemployable:


What do you do with men who were skilled coal miners? For most of them, there was idleness and a profound change in their way of life. They had lived their lives in a tight community of coal miners and had intense loyalties to their homes. When the mine closes down, what industry do you put them in? They were physically strong and willing to work. Nevertheless, their skills were hardly transferable to other industries. (The Other America, 27)


New Deal programs did help struggling workers in the post war period, yet these laws did not address the concerns of the unemployable. Laws like unemployment compensation, the Wagner Act, and the various farm programs had been designed for longstanding organized unions and the large estate farmers. If a man did move into a low paying service job, social security and other welfare programs at the time often did not even cover him. If a worker found a service job, any future unemployment compensation was scaled down to his new lower earnings. (Harrington, 9)


Over time, towns and cities tied to failing industries deteriorated, as surplus capital was no longer directed into urban development. Crime increased and new investors seldom committed to the decaying urban centers. The future of employed workers also became uncertain. Workers would not leave and search for new jobs because they found themselves tied to struggling industries through pension plans. Harrington argued, "Progress turned itself upside down". That is, the New Deal inspired pension plans, negotiated to give security and a decent life to workers, were not completely secure and impeded workers' mobility. Indeed, the pension tied workers to the fate of the company, the industry, and the area. If the company failed, workers' pensions were often disregarded. Yet, pension plans kept many workers from moving on to new, more certain, opportunities. (34)


Harrington argued those pushed into poverty found themselves in a vicious cycle. If they become ill, they missed work. If
they missed work, they made less money and became more likely to become ill:


Here is one of the most familiar forms of the vicious cycle of poverty. The poor get sick more than anyone else in society. That is because they live in slums, jammed together under unhealthy conditions; they have inadequate diets, and cannot get decent medical care. When they are sick, they are sick longer than any other group in society. Because they are sick more often and longer than anyone else, they lose wages and work, and find it difficult to hold a steady job. And because of this, they cannot pay for good housing, for a nutritious diet, for doctors. At any given point in the cycle, particularly when there is a major illness, their prospect is to move to an even lower level and to begin the cycle, round and round, toward even more suffering. (15)


Related problems in the free market system explain the failure of Great Society programs to eradicate poverty. Great Society programs did not address free market structural deficiencies. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The OEO devised the Job Corps, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and the Work Experience Training Program to train the poor for service positions in society. Training for jobs could not end poverty for, by late 1963, demand for service jobs was in decline. The OEO proposed "a service strategy when [there existed] a need for diagnosis of structural problems in the free market." (John A. Andrew, Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, 83)


The Johnson Administration soon came to realize the nature of the problem. Since poverty was not necessarily the fault of people, the government decided to create entitlement programs to transfer money to the needy. Paul Goodman states: "Poverty was not just a matter of isolated pockets; it was built into the American system. Within a few years [1964-1967], an almost unbroken intellectual consensus had formed behind the underlying premise that poverty was not a consequence of indolence or vice. The free market system was to blame." ("The Poverty of the Great Society", 220) Though this approach addressed the needs of the poor, it obviously failed to deal with the causes of poverty in the first place, and in promoting a "band-aid" remedy only skirted the issue.


Mentalities among the poor explain the increase of poverty in postwar America. Harrington wrote of the notion of aspiration. The poor who have hope in bettering their lives have aspiration. Those who lose hope of betterment lose their aspiration:


Poverty destroys aspiration. It is a system designed to be impervious to hope. The other America does not contain the adventurous seeking a new life and land. It is supported by failures, the unemployable, old people suddenly confronted with the torments of landlessness, and by minorities facing a wall of prejudice. (9)


For Harrington, those who lose aspiration become impoverished. Impoverishment is the mentality that views the world through the eyes of poverty. Harrington believed there exists "a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, and a worldview of the poor." (17) This culture of impoverishment created such hopelessness and despair, Harrington added, "the poor were no longer able to help themselves. As the poor struggled, as industries failed, more and more Americans became impoverished". (18)


Similar mentalities among the poor explain the failure of President Johnson's Great Society programs.

Great Society entitlement programs facilitated a lethargic mentality among the poor that kept many on welfare. Unemployment rates increased during the tenure of Great Society programs. Charles Murray notes: "Beginning in 1966, the black male [labor force] started to fall substantially faster than the white male [labor force]. The divergence that occurred was not a minor statistical blip but a change in astounding magnitude. America had seen large scale entry into the labor force before, but it never witnessed a large scale withdrawal from the labor force by able bodied men." (335) Though, the economy did do well under the Johnson Administration. Murray concludes: "[These people] behaved in ways that for many, forfeited their futures as economically independent adults. They behaved in those ways because, under new rules, it seemed both profitable and rational to do so. The new rules pandered to the most human of impulses, the pursuit of one's short term advantage." (366)


Middle class misconceptions about poverty virtually denied the existence of the poor and contributed to their plight. Much of American society was becoming affluent. In 1929, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 59 percent of the work force was blue-collar, 41 percent white-collar. By 1957, the blue-collar percentage had declined to 47 percent; white-collar had risen to 53 percent. At the time, many people saw this development as a sign that America was becoming a classless, economically democratic society. The nation, they argued, was becoming white-collar. (Harrington, 31) Harrington explained these figures as misleading. The rise in white-collar jobs included service positions. Increases in service positions reflected a decline in industrial work. Simply, as structural changes caused greater industrial unemployment, workers moved to non-union, lower paying, service positions. (32)


The poor were largely invisible to the middle class: "The other America, the America of poverty was hidden in a way that it never was before. Its millions were socially invisible." (Harrington, 3) The benefits of industrialization served to mask the plight of the poor. The poor were reasonably well dressed and often overweight. Mass production of clothing and cheap foods explains this phenomenon. The poor, in decaying urban cities, were isolated from the middle class. After the middle class left the cities for the suburbs, the poor lost their political voice. The city bosses catered to both the middle class and the working poor. With the loss of the middle class, the poor also lost the benefit of paternalistic reform movements. (4)


Middle class misconceptions about the issue of poverty also explain the failure of the Great Society to eradicate poverty. Misconceptions about poverty during the Great Society period led to rejection of the programs and an end to further legislation. Many in the middle class resented the Great Society programs because they believed these programs were created primarily for African-Americans. Granted, many programs did aid blacks. Other programs, though, such as the Appalachia Aid Act of 1965 worked to help poor whites.

Many Americans also tended to believe the problems of poverty could be solved over a short period. They lost patience with the Great Society within a few years as program costs continued to rise. By 1968, support for programs waned. For conservatives, the values of hard work, thrift, and faith defined pragmatic solutions to problems in the market economy and ultimately offered escape from poverty, or at least from the despair of impoverishment. Encouraging this view, the newly elected president, Richard M. Nixon, resisted new legislation.


cited works, the Great Society: here.