The Great Society III: Two Books-Two Eras

In 1962 Michael Harrington wrote a book called The Other America which was published by Macmillan Publishing Company and was read by millions. Harrington wrote that the middle class and the poor once lived in the same neighborhoods, or in neighborhoods that were right next to each other. When those who were more successful financially began collecting together in suburban neighborhoods they left behind a group of poor people who had not prospered and who lacked the education or the skills to prosper. These people lived in what Harrington called “pockets of poverty” that stubbornly persisted and that became more and more invisible to everyone else. He said,
“Now the American city has been transformed. The poor still inhabit the miserable housing in the central area, but they are increasingly isolated from contact with, or sight of, anybody else. Middle-class women coming in from Suburbia on a rare trip may catch the merest glimpse of the other America on the way to an evening at the theater, but their children are segregated in suburban schools. The business or professional man may drive along the fringes of slums in a car or bus, but it is not an important experience to him. The failures, the unskilled, the disabled, the aged, and the minorities are right there, across the tracks where they have always been. But hardly anyone else is.
In short, the very development of the American city has removed poverty, from the living, emotional experience of millions upon millions of middle-class Americans. Living out in the suburbs it is easy to assume that ours is, indeed, an affluent society.
Michael Harrington continues by arguing that the move of the more affluent to the suburbs is not the only factor that makes poverty invisible. He says, “Clothes make the poor invisible too: America has the best-dressed poverty the world has ever know…It is easier in the United States to be decently dressed than it is to be decently housed, fed, or doctored. Even people with terribly depressed incomes can look prosperous.” He continues by saying, “Then many of the poor are the wrong age to be seen. A good number of them (over 8,000,000) are sixty-five years of age or better; an even larger number are under eighteen.” “And finally,” he says, “the poor are politically invisible. It is one of the cruelest ironies of social life in advanced countries that the dispossessed at the bottom of society are unable to speak for themselves. The people of the other America do not, by far and large, belong to unions, to fraternal organizations, or to political parties. They are without lobbies of their own; they put forward no legislative program. As a group, they are atomized. They have no face; they have no voice…
The first step toward the new poverty was taken when millions of people proved immune to progress. When that happened, the failure was not individual and personal, but a social product. But once the historic accident takes place, it begins to become a personal fate.
The new poor of the other America saw the rest of society move ahead. They went on living in depressed areas, and often they tended to be depressed human beings…
Indeed, one of the most important things about the new poverty is that it cannot be defined in simple, statistical terms. Throughout this book a crucial term is used: aspiration. If a group has internal vitality, a will – if it has aspiration – it may live in dilapidated housing, it may eat an inadequate diet, and it may suffer poverty, but it is not impoverished. So it was in those ethnic slums of the immigrants that played such a dramatic role in the unfolding of the American dream. The people found themselves in slums but they were not slum dwellers.
 But the new poverty is constructed so as to destroy aspiration; it is a system designed to be impervious to hope. The other America does not contain the adventurous seeking a new life and land. It is populated by the failures, by those driven from the land and bewildered by the city, by old people suddenly confronted with the torments of loneliness and poverty and by minorities facing a wall of prejudice.
Obviously I cannot quote the entire book, but you can catch Michael Harrington’s drift even from these few quotations. Whether it was the power of his descriptions or the fact that LBJ wanted to complete the Kennedy agenda, or, as some contend, because of LBJ’s  own agenda, resulting from his time in Texas near the Mexican border and his own observations about poverty, within two years of the publication of Harrington’s book LBJ had declared “War on Poverty” and started the huge legislative roll- out of “The Great Society”.
Now we have a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray published by Crown Forum (Random House) in 2012. If Harrington’s The Other America was the “on” switch for the “Great Society, people are suggesting that Coming Apart may be the “off” switch because, if true, it wipes out any progress made as a result of the initiatives of “The Great Society” and provides ammunition for those who would wish to abandon the “War on Poverty”.
Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post reviewed Coming Apart on February 24, 2012. He says, “Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute…argues that today’s class separations threaten America’s very nature. On the one hand is a growing lower class characterized by insecure work, unstable families and more crime. On the other is a highly educated elite that dominates our commercial, political and nonprofit institutions but is increasingly isolated from the rest of America, particularly the lower class. Samuelson goes on to say, “Murray finds America’s evolving class structure threatening in two ways. First, it’s bad for the people involved. The lower class is less capable of caring for itself. The powerful elite is disconnected. Second, the new classes subvert social cohesion by weakening shared values that Murray calls America’s ‘founding virtues’—industriousness, commitment to marriage, honesty and religion.
Samuelson notes; “Murray is describing white America. In his main analysis, he omitted Latinos and African-Americans to debunk the notion that the country’s serious social problems are just the result of immigration or the stubborn legacy of slavery and racism.”
David Frum of The Daily Beast has written a comprehensive series of articles about the book Coming Apart. Frum finds the book flawed in a number of important ways. One section of his review is called “Social Science Minus the Science” First Mr. Frum says, “Despite all its perverse omissions and careless generalizations, Coming Apart deserves credit at least for this: It takes seriously the challenge of the reconstitution of America as a middle-class republic. At a time when many conservatives refuse to acknowledge the simple statistical fact of intensifying inequality, Murray has at least joined the discussion. Congratulations for that.”
But  Frum finds many problems with the book. First the author offers no solutions except a “civic Great Awakening” among the new upper class and a drastic reduction in the American welfare state. He quotes from Murray.
A man holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. If the same man lives under a system that says the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then the status goes away. I am not describing a theoretical outcome, but American neighborhoods where once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn’t. Taking the trouble out of life strips people of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, ‘I made a difference”.
People are using this reasoning to justify their belief that the social programs of the 60’s and 70’s and even those from the 1930’s have not been effective, in fact they have undermined the American middle-class. Correlation does not, however prove causation. We could say that eating ice cream causes drowning because the incidence of both ice cream eating and drowning goes up in the summer, but this one is a no-brainer. We easily see the flaw. Since we are currently at the receiving end of a downturn in the economy and of a transition in the marketplace, we, the declining middle class, are feeling inexplicably that we may be to blame, that our joblessness is our fault, that our lack of optimism and, perhaps, our depressed state is something we did to ourselves. Mr. Murray also seems to suggest that this is true so he feeds right in to our vague feelings of guilt and not so vague feelings of personal failure. But there are so many factors that have played a part in this middle-class slide, such as globalization, technology in factories, technology in offices (almost no one has a secretary anymore), and even environmental concerns, catastrophes, and war. As Mr. Frum asks and as I would ask too, where is the proof that “government activity has caused…class disparities.” “Yet,” Frum continues, “at the end of the book, without ever suggesting any reason to believe that government is the problem, he insists that the reduction of government is the solution.”
This book is so popular and has raised so much fuss, not because of its rigorous scholarly approach to modern issues, but simply because it backs up the Republican agenda and suggests that it is time to turn the switch of government involvement in social issues to the “off” position. David Frum continues, “I found myself flipping from beginning to end of the book, punching searches into my Kindle, questioning whether I’d perhaps carelessly missed some crucial piece of evidence. But no. There is no evidence, not even an argument, just an after-the-fact assertion, pulled out of the hat. If we are going to use a scientific study to back up the kinds of damaging statements conservatives are making about so many Americans then we need a better source than this book.

The Great Society Meets Globalization

The programs which came out of LBJ’s “Great Society” are right at the center of the differences between Democrats and Republicans today. It is possible that without our recent recessionary economy we could have side-stepped these differences, but once money became tight the issues came to the forefront. Republicans have been proponents of small government for decades and after reviewing the astounding number of programs designed and funded by the Great Society, it is easy to see why they would feel that our government had become uncomfortably “large”.  The federal government had its fingers in lots of pies, and the whole business made Republicans quite twitchy.
But it was working. The political uprisings of the sixties calmed down as people were put to work, or sent off to school, or were provided governments funds for housing, health care, and welfare funds to subsidize a more comfortable lifestyle. By the 1990’s there was a rise in the number of people who could be considered middle class. More African Americans entered the middle class than ever before, and not because of government funding, but because of real results of education, training and better jobs. Republicans say that the number of people who live in poverty has not changed, but the middle class did make some gains before the factories began their exodus and the housing market crashed and the economy went into recession. My internet explorations suggest that the middle class has lost all the ground it gained and that the same is true, although even more so, for African Americans.
We are all worried that we will not be able to afford the programs that have survived from the Great Society (many of the programs are not still in effect, some have been given to the states, but some are still being funded (Medicaid, Medicare, the expanded Social Security program). The Republicans never felt that these programs were effective or proper to begin with. They advocate changing them, cutting them or getting rid of them altogether. They feel that people have come to rely on these programs, that they are robbing people of “gumption” and making them lazy and demanding. They feel that these programs have caused the demise of the traditional family among the poor and are turning people into parasites. They also show us data that suggests that many of us do not pay any taxes and therefore a small number of affluent people who do pay taxes end up paying for these parasitic lay-abouts. What this assumes is that there are no people who are poor through no fault of their own, that there are enough jobs available to support everyone and that these types of programs cause poverty or at least prolong poverty. They suggest that we get rid of the social safety net and let the chips fall where they may. They reason that we will not be able to sustain these programs anyway given that the American economy promises to be slow for some time to come. They seem to have no qualms about recommending some kind of social experiment which involves kicking out all of the props and observing what happens.
If our economy stays as weak as it is, we probably will find ourselves changing or discontinuing these programs, but I believe that society will be the poorer for it. The world existed for centuries without organized programs to assist poor citizens. The world observed an order of rigid social classes that allowed for very little upward movement. Very few poor families moved up to the merchant class. Merchants were considered to be too crass to ever move into the upper classes, in spite of any wealth they might have. The conditions of life in poor neighborhoods were unhealthy and unsanitary. Epidemics of illness raged through the lower classes and eventually affected the wealthy no matter what precautions they took to close themselves off. Certain medical attentions are necessary to keep all the citizens in a culture safe which explains the genesis of health programs for the poor which must be paid for by someone (isn’t this worth some money from the rich?). In America we do not believe in rigid social classes. We believe in dynamic social levels that allow citizens to move up and down as their fortunes wax and wane. We also have come to see that some people are unable to move up and end up being doomed to stay poor forever if we don’t intercede. We have learned that it benefits the whole society to provide educational and training opportunities for poor people who are stuck.
Instead of asking can we afford to keep doing this, the question should be can we afford to stop? Will we be America if we stop or will we give up our American ideals? How would this new America be any different from the old nation-states or monarchies which people fled? When the distance between the fortunes at the top of a culture and the miseries at the bottom of a culture get too great conditions are ripe for revolution. We already have the best governmental format that has been dreamed up so far. We must not let things get so out of whack that we stand to lose our treasured lifestyle. Are we sure we can’t afford the programs which help society operate on a more level field? Wouldn’t all of us pay a bit more in taxes for that?
How do we get from too many regulations to no regulation? We can’t. Our memories won’t let us. How do we get from too much support for the poorest among us to no support? We won’t. We know better. How will we make our cuts and raise our revenues in a reasoned way? We must. However, given current conditions we won’t. Our ancestors lived in a climate in which the market was allowed to regulate itself. That’s where we got labor unions to protect workers from rapacious bosses and that’s where we got The Great Depression.
Even if the Republicans had not decided to take this opportunity to change the bargains we have reached as regards women’s rights, I would still hope that they lose the 2012 election. Society is not a social experiment, it represents the sum total of the lessons we have learned about human interaction throughout history. I don’t want us to voluntarily return to the dark ages.  I do not want to turn out the lights.

The Great Society

The name-calling and differences in viewpoint between Republicans and Democrats are not as new as they seem. For decades the Republicans have used the term “democratic socialism” or just plain “socialism” to describe the Democratic party’s belief that the Federal government has a responsibility to provide some support services to less fortunate Americans and the belief that these supportive services will help “lift” people up out of poverty. For decades the Republicans have argued that these are not the concerns of our Federal government and that such programs are singularly ineffective at changing poverty levels. Although Republicans are more intransigent in their views than they have ever been, they can find evidence to back up their arguments. However, the Democrats, if they were so inclined, could also find evidence to back up their arguments that such programs have achieved results.
The Republicans have been citing, lately and ad infinitum, the failures of the social programs of the Great Society. Lyndon Johnson, who took office after Kennedy was assassinated, wanted “to use his power aggressively to eliminate poverty and spread the benefits of prosperity to all.”
Wikipedia says that;
With the exception of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Great Society was not a widely discussed issue during the 1964 presidential campaigns. Johnson won the election with 61% of the vote, the largest percentage since the popular vote first became widespread in 1824, and he carried all but six states. Democrats gained enough seats to control more than two-thirds of each chamber in the Eighty-ninth Congress with a 68-32 margin in the Senate and a 295-140 margin in the House of Representatives. The political realignment allowed House leaders to alter rules that had allowed Southern Democrats to kill New Frontier and civil rights legislation in committee, which aided efforts to pass Great Society legislation. In 1965, the first session of the Eighty-ninth Congress created the core of the Great Society. The Johnson Administration submitted eighty-seven bills to Congress, and Johnson signed eighty-four, or 96%, arguably the most successful legislative agenda in U. S. Constitutional history.
In the area of Civil Rights:
·         Civil Rights Act of 1964 – forbade job discrimination/segregation of public accommodations
·         Voting Rights Act of 1965- assured minority registration and voting/suspended use of literacy and other voter-qualification tests/federal court lawsuits instituted to stop discriminatory poll taxes/appointed federal voting examiners in areas with low voter participation.
·         The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas
·         The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination/extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservation.
War on Poverty:
Johnson…launched an ‘unconditional war on poverty’ in the first months of his presidency with the goal of eliminating hunger and deprivation from American life.”
·         Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 – created Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to oversee an array of community-based antipoverty programs. (spent $1b in 1964, $2b in following two years)
·         Job Corps – purpose was to help disadvantaged youth develop marketable skills
·         The Neighborhood Youth Corps – established to give poor urban youths work experience/encourage them to stay in school
·         Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) – domestic Peace Corps – concerned citizens placed with community-based agencies to work towards employment of the poor
·         Model Cities Program – urban redevelopment
·         Upward Bound – assisted poor high school students entering college
·         Legal Aide – legal assistance for the poor
·         The Food Stamp Act of 1964
·         Community Action Program – initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient
·         Project Head Start – offered preschool education for poor children
·         Community Health Centers – funding was provided to expand access to health care
·         Social Security – major amendments were made in 1965 and 1967/ increased benefits/ expanded coverage/ established new programs to combat poverty and raise living standards.
·         AFDC payments – 35% higher in 1968, still insufficient and uneven
·         Elementary and Education Act of 1965 – ended a long-standing political taboo by providing significant federal aid to public education programs to schools with a high concentration of low-income children/made Head Start a permanent program
·         Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 – increased drastically the colleges and programs available for education beyond high school, including improving college libraries, new graduate centers, new technical institutions and new community colleges (many).
·         Higher Education Act of 1968 – offered federal aid to local school districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability (expired in 2002)
·         Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare
·         Welfare recipients in 1966 received medical care through the Medicaid program which was created in 1965 under Title XIX of the Social Security Act of 1965
·         Arts and cultural institutions:
·         National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities – 1965
·         Public Broadcasting Funding – 1967 (CPB Corporation for Public Broadcasting/private non-profit), Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), National Public Radio (NPR)
Cultural Centers:
·         Kennedy Center – 1971
·         Smithsonian Institution art museum (1930’s) added the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
·         1966 – created cabinet-level Department of Transportation
·         1964 – Urban Mass Transportation Act
·         1966 – National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act/Highway Safety Act
·         Consumer Protection:
·         Assistant Secretary of Labor, Esther Peterson, 1st presidential assistant for consumer affairs
·         1965 – Cigarette Labeling Act – required warning on cigarette packages
·         The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act – requires products to identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings
·         1966 – Child Safety Act
·         1967 – Flammable Fabrics Act
·         1967 – Wholesome Meat Act
·         1968 – Truth-in-lending Act
·         1968 – Wholesome Poultry Products Act
·         1968 – Land Sales Disclosure Act
·         1968 – The Radiation Safety Act
·         Clean Air, Water Quality and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments
·         Wilderness Act of 1964
·         Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966
·         National Trails System Act of 1968
·         Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968
·         Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965
·         Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965
·         Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965
·         National Historical Preservation Control Act of 1966
·         Aircraft Noise Abatement Act of 1968
·         National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
·         Labor – Prevailing wage provisions were extended to cover fringe benefits/several increases to federal minimum wage
Wow! It is amazing what an unchallenged President and his/her Congress can accomplish. Newt Gingrich made a prediction on Meet The Press this past Sunday that this configuration will obtain for the Republicans in 2012; they will not only win the Presidency, but also both Houses of Congress. I have a number of difficulties trusting anything Newt Gingrich has to say and I sincerely hope he is wrong about this. I can, however, see, especially after this stunning summary of the way the Great Society changed America, why the Republicans would wish for their turn in political nirvana. They would rapidly proceed to undo the accomplishments of the Great Society.
Typing this list has been very revealing to me. These are the times I lived through. Of course, I guess I have never stepped back and taken an overview of these years. I actually worked in two programs made possible by the Great Society. I worked for Head Start, once as a teacher’s aide in a summer program, and once as a researcher with the SU Psychology Department on a grant, to look at the effectiveness of the Head Start Program. I worked for another Great Society Program originally called SEEK, then Cooperative College Center, then Educational Opportunity Center, designed to send adults on to college. I worked in this program for 24 years. It was and is an excellent program and I swear it has made a difference in the lives of many students who were sent to colleges and graduated and went on to employment in the community. Many of these programs helped shine attention on the needs of minority groups and helped quell some rather serious political unrest in a number of American cities in 1964 (NYC and LA) and 1968 when hundreds of cities had major riots.
Wikipedia’s way of summing up the views of the opposing sides is as effective as any so I will use it here. “Alan Brinkley has suggested that ‘the gap between the expansive intentions of the War on Poverty and its relatively modest achievements fueled later conservative arguments that government is not an appropriate vehicle for solving social problems.”
“One of Johnson’s aides, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. has countered that ‘from 1963 when Lyndon Johnson took office until 1970 as the impact of his Great Society programs were felt, the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century.’ The percentage of African-Americans below the poverty line dropped from 55 percent in 1950 to 27 percent in 1968.”
“Libertarian economist Thomas Sowell argues that the Great Society programs only contributed to the destruction of African American families, saying ‘the black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.’”
While I know many would agree with this I think this is like saying that when the British who grew so close to each other in the Blitz will never again achieve this level of national intimacy without another crisis. We have what is clearly a case of the dialectic at play here. Remove trauma and an adjustment will occur; remove trauma long enough and other more positive adjustments will occur.
The Republican in my backyard mentioned the words “Great Society” at least four times in conversation. This sent me running to my computer to refresh my memory, so my friendly “opponent” inspired this post.