Paul R. Lehman, LBJ’S Great Society assessed by Geo. Will as a failure

May 20, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Posted in African American, American history, blacks, Civil Right's Act 1964, discrimination, entitlements, Equal Opportunity, European American, George Will, politicians, poor, poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson, socioeconomics | Leave a comment
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In a recent article entitled, “50 years later, LBJ’s mixed legacy,”(05/18/2014) George Will expressed his reasons for thinking that all of Johnson’s efforts regarding his concept of the Great Society while seemingly a good government effort, created the problems our society is experiencing today. He stated:”In 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing ‘just about always or most of the time’; today, 19 percent do. The former number is one reason Johnson did so much; the latter is one consequence of his doing so.”
In other words, according to Will, Johnson and his Great Society programs are the cause of the problems our society is experiencing today. Will referenced Nicholas Eberstadt and his work at the American Enterprise Institute for much of the statistics regarding this situation. For example, Will provide the following numbers: “Between 1959 and 1966—before the War on Poverty was implemented—the percentage of Americans living in poverty plunged by about one-third, from 22.4 to 14.7, slightly lower than in 2012.” Then he added: “But Eberstadt cautions, the poverty rate is ‘incorrigibly misleading’ because government transfer payments have made income levels and consumption levels significantly different.” More specifically, Will noted that :”’Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, disability payments, heating assistance and other entitlements have, Eberstadt says, made income ‘a poor predictor of spending power for lower-income groups.’”
What Will and Eberstadt did was to look at the statistics relative to what they call entitlements that were created as part of Johnson’s Great Society programs and made assessments as to the success or failure of those programs in achieving their objectives. We are told that anti-poverty policy has become institutionalized and created “a’ tangle of pathologies.’ Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined that phrase in his 1965 report calling attention to family disintegration among African Americans. The tangle, which now ensnares all races and ethnicities, includes welfare dependency and ‘flight from work.’”
Continuing his presentation of information regarding the problems created by Johnson’s Great Society programs, Will stated that “Twenty-nine percent of Americans live in households receiving means-tested benefits. And ‘the proportion of men 20 and older who are employed has dramatically and almost steadily dropped since the start of the War on Poverty, falling from 80.6 percent in January 1964 to 67.6 percent 50 years later.’” Will and Eberstadt presented this information as if this social phenomenon happened within a vacuum. No mention was made regarding the many government handouts made to the oil industry, banking industry, automobile industry and agricultural industry, to name a few. Nor did they mention the fact that the government provided opportunities for banking, corporations, and companies to reorganize and rid themselves of employees along with their retirement, healthcare and pensions. Also not mentioned was the disproportionate rate of incarceration of young African American men.
Will and Eberstadt took a very narrow view of Johnson’s Great Society programs with an emphasis on the negative aspects of them. The article continued with “For every adult man ages 20 to 64 who is between jobs and looking for work, more than three are neither working nor seeking work, a trend that began with the Great Society.” What Will and Eberstadt did not provide here were rational reasons for these adult men not being employed or finding employment. Their statement suggests that these men were not concerned with working or looking for work when other condition might have influenced their actions. For example, if some of these men were working for companies and the companies closed or relocated to another area or country, what were these men supposed to do? If the jobs were lost and replacement jobs were not available, the men and their communities found themselves in a quandary.
What appeared to be a direct attack on African Americans and a negative aspect of the Great Society programs was the following comment in the article:”And what Eberstadt calls ‘the earthquake that shook family structure in the era of expansive anti-poverty policies’ has seen out-of-wedlock births increase from 7.7 percent in 1965 to more than 40 percent in 2012, including 72 percent of black babies.” Why the reference to “black babies”? Will and Eberstadt, evidently, wanted to point their fingers at African Americans as the villains who created this problem. But, not to divert too much attention away from the real cause of our social conditions, they returned their focus in the last portion of the article to LBJ.
After fifty years Will resolved that “LBJ’s starkly bifurcated [two-part] legacy includes the triumphant Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965—and the tragic aftermath of much of his other works.” So, rather than looking at the successful works, Will and Eberstadt take the other view:”Is It ‘simply a coincidence’ that male flight from work and family breakdown have coincided with Great Society policies, and that dependence on government is more widespread and perhaps more habitual than ever? Barry Goldwater’s insistent 1964 question is increasingly pertinent: ‘What’s happening to this country of ours?’”
The question is a very legitimate and valid one that deserves an answer. Will concentrated his attention of the policies from Johnson’s Great Society program and the people who relied on those programs now for support. What Will failed to focus on or even mention are the people and policies that created the need for the Great Society programs. We went to the book by Hedrick Smith, Who Stole The American Dream, (2013) for one explanation. He stated that:
In our New Economy, America’s super-rich have accumulated trillions in new wealth, far beyond anything in other nations, while the American middle-class has stagnated. What separates the Two Americans is far more than a wealth gap. It is a wealth chasm—“mind-boggling’ in its magnitude, says Princeton economist Alan Krueger. Wealth has flowed so massively to the top that during the nation’s growth spurt from 2002-2007, America’s super-rich, the top 1 percent (3 million people), reaped two-thirds of the nation’s entire economic gains. The other 99 percent were left with only one-third of the gains to divide among 310 million people. In 2010, the first full year of the economic recovery, the top 1 percent captured 93 percent of the nation’s gains.
Will never attempted to include the part that wealth and politics have played in bringing our society to the place it is today. He would rather blame it on Johnson’s policies meant to help the Americans in need. Regarding that matter, Smith continued:
Americans, more than people in other countries, accept some inequality as part of our life, as inevitable and even desirable—a reward for talent and hard work, an incentive to produce and excel. But wealth begets wealth, especially when reinforced through the influence of money in politics. Then the hyperconcentration of wealth aggravates the political cleavages in our society.
If LBJ’s policies and programs had been given an opportunity to work unencumbered and without other negative influences, our society would be a step closer to what he envisioned as a Great Society.

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