Barron’s editorial page editor looks at the Great Society at 50

Thomas Donlan of Barron’s assesses the history of the Great Society programs Lyndon Johnson launched on May 22, 1964.

For better and for worse, we live in Johnson’s Great Society. The most important changes of social conditions in the U.S. in the past 50 years involve the goals that Johnson defined: an end to racial injustice and poverty.

The legal effort to stop states and localities from using laws to create and promote racial discrimination ended the overt and obvious abuses of power. But racial harmony is still a dream, and ethnic politics are no substitute. We do have higher community standards of tolerance, and most Americans enthusiastically shame those who hold hatred in their hearts and let it show in public.

Ending poverty was a different kind of fight. Official statistics seem to suggest it is a complete failure, with the poverty rate stuck right about where it was in 1964. But poverty as it was known in 1964 is almost unknown today. The poverty rate is measured on a relative scale, so it is almost unchanged because the whole society is much richer than it was a half-century ago. But on an absolute scale of misery, hunger, oppression, discomfort, and ill health, the war on poverty was a great, though expensive, victory.

Johnson’s legacy depends on the continued expenditure of a trillion dollars a year on direct transfers of income, spending on benefits targeted to those of little means, and the expenditures for the administration of the income transfers and benefit programs.

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