The Great Society: It Was Great

War on Poverty

Every time new poverty numbers come out, I inevitably find the historical chart and am once again reminded of what a persistent and pernicious myth it is that somehow Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was a failure. As with any ambitious series of new policy initiatives, some of the things done in the Kennedy-Johnson years didn’t work out well, but the results shown here speak volumes. When Ronald Reagan proclaimed “we declared war on poverty and poverty won” he was dead wrong — poverty still existed, but the number of impoverished Americans had declined precipitously. Then, under 12 years of conservative rule, the number went way up! In percentage terms, we haven’t moved as far back in the wrong direction, but we still haven’t managed to climb all the way back to where we were. Meanwhile, if you look at the age breakout you’ll see that one reason we haven’t swung too far back to where we were pre-LBJ is that the poverty numbers for senior citizens have remained very low — thanks in large part to the fact that the elements of the Great Society that targeted seniors have basically been kept in place.