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The Great Society at 50.

Listen To You Tell Me Texas Friday 5/23/14
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Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson gave a speech at the University of Michigan in which he first proposed what he called the “Great Society.” The Great Society was an amalgam of federal programs intended to address, among other things, poverty and poor educational achievement among minorities.

The Great Society would bring about an exponential expansion of the federal government’s role in education, health care and welfare.

So what of the Great Society on its 50th birthday? Sadly, there’s little to celebrate.

On the subject of poverty, a half century and the spending of more than $2 trillion has moved the needle very little. The poverty rate in 2014 is only marginally lower than it was in 1964.

What has changed is the perception of the role of individual responsibility as an antidote to poverty. Much of the stigma once attendant to being on the public dole is now gone.

On the subject of education, the Great Society greatly expanded the role of the federal government in public schools. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 stands to this day as the most far-reaching piece of education legislation ever passed by Congress. With few exceptions, every local school district is now dependent on federal dollars.

Despite spending massive amounts of those dollars, few, if any, of the Great Society goals attendant to education have been achieved. Public schools across the country are in chaos – many having devolved into de facto war zones.

American students rank near the bottom among developed countries in math, science and reading comprehension. A smaller proportion of African-American students today are able to read at grade level than were able in 1965.

On the subject of health care, the Great Society gave us Medicare and Medicaid, which combined now provide health care for 115 million Americans. Both programs are simultaneously deeply entrenched – making them politically impossible to modify – and insolvent, making them fiscally unsustainable.

But for Medicare and Medicaid, the federal budget would be balanced.

All of this expansion of the federal government has had the perverse effect of turning us into cynics. In 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing. Today, 19 percent do.

But by far the worst consequence of the Great Society has been its impact upon families. Dependence on government – once intended to be temporary – has become habitual and is, in millions of cases, passed from one generation to the next.

In millions of households, welfare and food stamps now take the place of working fathers. In 1965, the rate of out-of-wedlock births was 7.7 percent. Today, it stands at more than 40 percent for the population as a whole – and an appalling 73 percent for African-Americans.

On this, the Golden Anniversary of the Great Society, there is little introspection on the left. Just as it was when LBJ was promoting it, the left would have us judge the Great Society by its lofty intentions – hoping that 50 years later, we will overlook its tragic results.