By Waqas Bhutta ’15
As I sit in my history class, I take in the policies of the “Great Society”. The Great Society was a set of programs produced by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson gave a commencement speech, in which he offered his vision of a “Great Society”, where poverty is nonexistent. Today it is evident that poverty still exists and has not been washed away.
‘’We have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society,’’ said Lyndon Johnson in a speech at the University of Michigan, according to the New York Times.
In 1964, President Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in his State of the Union Address, which to this day is a war that is not won. Many of Johnson’s government programs have helped fewer people because of program changes and budget cuts. The Vietnam War deterred funding for the Great Society programs, and ultimately made them not as effective as there were intended to be.
The U.S. government should begin to increase funding for Johnsons’ programs and bring back some of Johnson’s successful policies, which will undoubtedly decrease the unemployment rate and the poverty rate.
President Johnson’s Great Society included an immense system of government programs. Some of the programs created were Medicare, Medicaid, Volunteers in Service to America, a food stamp program, the Job Corps, and Head Start, which lifted thousands above a low standard of living.
Food stamps, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, for instance, kept four million Americans out of poverty in 2011, according to the New York Times. Likewise, through the creation of Medicare, health insurance for the elderly, and the Social Security program, the rate among older Americans fell to 9 percent in 2012 compared to 35 percent in 1959.
When Johnson gave the commencement speech, the national poverty rate was 19 percent. Fifty years later, the national poverty rate is still around 15 percent. According to the New York Times, 1.7 million households were living on cash income of less than $2 a person a day in 2011.
Republicans argue that the Great Society programs just threw money away without producing results, costing the government billions of dollars. The government did use a lot of money, however, it did not go to waste. These programs prevented the poverty rate from increasing. According to a Columbia University study, if the government did not provide benefits, the poverty rate would have soared to 31 percent in 2012.
According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, an average of 27 million people were lifted annually out of poverty by social programs between 1968 and 2012.
There are many reasons why the poverty rate is still high. One of the major reasons is the falling value of the minimum wage. The bottom third of the American work force has seen little or no rise in inflation-adjusted wages since the early 1970s, according to the New York Times.
According to research done by the University of Massachusetts, if a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 is approved by Congress, it would lift about five million people out of poverty, reducing the poverty rate by 1.7 percent.
“It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity, all our must citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates,” said Johnson at Harvard University in 1965, according to the Huffington Post.
With more than 46 million people living below the poverty line, it seems that poverty will always remain in society. However, the government can provide support to lower the rates and help millions of people in need.
By Waqas Bhutta ’15