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50 Years after LBJ’s War on Poverty and Great Society Legislation, Americans Still Feel Significant Impact, says UNH Political Scientist

Release Date:
6/24/2014 9:00 PM
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June 24, 2014

Joshua Sandman, featuresJoshua Sandman

WEST HAVEN, CONN. -- Head Start. Medicare and Medicaid. Civil rights and voting rights.  Expanded college enrollment and college Work Study programs. The Clean Air Act.  Food Stamps.

They are all part of  President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society legislative  initiative  enacted over four years beginning 50 years ago this July.  The legislation is still protecting America’s most vulnerable and improving the lives of numerous citizens, said Joshua Sandman, a political science professor at the University of New Haven, who is an expert on the American presidency. 

The Great Society legislation, enacted between 1964 (starting with the Civil Rights Act) through 1968 when the Higher Education Act became law, has changed how Americans live.

In fact, it has had such an impact on American life that Sandman said Johnson was one of the three most effective presidents of the modern presidency.

Sandman, who studies the American presidency and especially the Presidencies of John F. Kennedy and LBJ, argues LBJ, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were agents of change presidents.

“The Great Society programs -- in the form of civil rights expansion, educational opportunity, Medicare and Medicaid health care coverage, food and nutrition services for the low income and poor – continue to play an important role in protecting the most vulnerable in our country,” said Sandman.  “These programs have improved the lives of many citizens and helped cushion the impact of the Great Recession of 2008.”

“While the Great Society legislation has deeply affected American society, Sandman said, it could not – and was never intended to – offset the impact of the Great Recession housing bubble, deregulation, deindustrialization, job displacement by technology and the excesses of   Wall Street.

“The Great Recession, counter-intuitively, has allowed the conservative opponents of Great Society measures to mount an attack questioning its cost, effectiveness and on-going viability,” he said. 

And yet, he added, the Great Society programs continue to provide a safety net and a pathway for citizens to uplift themselves – even 50 years after their enactment.

The Great Society legislation includes: the 1964 Civil Rights Act; urban mass transit legislation (funds 50 percent of the cost of transit improvements done by cities); the Food Stamp Act; the job-creating Manpower Act; the Voting Rights Act; the Housing and Urban Development Act (which greatly expanded funding for existing  and added additional federal housing programs; ;  matching grants to localities for the construction of water and sewer facilities, construction of community centers in low-income areas, and urban beautification: the Higher Education Act (which, among other things, created work study programs and funded new classroom facilities); Medicare and Medicaid: child nutrition program and  Head Start.

“Johnson had seen a lot of poverty and malnutrition growing up in Texas and while touring Appalachia,” Sandman said.  “Johnson was deeply affected by this and began what he called a ‘War on Poverty.’”  He tried to address the impoverishment and poverty he experienced and saw with legislation could correct or mitigate these challenging situations.”  

LBJ’s crusade had a dramatic impact on society” he said. “Food stamps virtually eliminated malnutrition. The Voting Rights Act led to a dramatic increase in minority voting in the Southern states.  Medicare and Medicaid improved the health of Americans, especially older and poorer Americans. His program opened up home ownership and higher educational opportunities to people who had never thought it was possible to own a home or send a child to college.”

Other resulting laws include the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts and a farm bill that made it easier for poor and middle class families to purchase bread, cheese, milk, cereal and fruits and vegetables.

“The programs were all significant, and still, provide substantial benefits to many Americans,” Sandman said.

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