‘Great Society’: Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty


By Patrick AllittEmory University

After John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, took on the role of the president. He was a civil rights enthusiast through and through. One of Johnson’s achievements during his presidency was his sweeping anti-poverty, anti-discrimination legislation, remembered collectively as the Great Society, aimed at eliminating poverty.

President Lyndon Johson shakes hands with a man
Lyndon Johnson was determined to eliminate poverty once and for all. Many of the programs he started continue to support the poor in America. (Image: Cecil W. Stoughton/Public domain)

How Did Lyndon Johnson Get Into Politics?

Johnson came from a very different background than Kennedy. He came from humble Texas stock. His grandfather was one of the Populists in the 1890s, and he was already a Washington veteran when Kennedy arrived on the scene. In the early 1930s, he’d been a Texas congressman’s aide.

He did a term in Congress before the Second World War, ran unsuccessfully for a Texas Senate seat in 1941, and then did a stint in the Navy, like most of his contemporaries. Coming out of the service, he ran again for the U.S. Senate in 1948 and won. In 1954, he was reelected and became the Senate majority leader. By 1960, he’d already got nearly 30 years of experience in Washington and was one of the savviest men in town. 

Popular, but Overshadowed by Kennedy Mystic

Becoming president, especially under the circumstances of assassination, he felt a little bit overshadowed by the mystic of the Kennedys, and Johnson himself was scorned by the Kennedy loyalists. 

Still, he won reelection handsomely in 1964 against the conservative Republican named Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was an Arizona senator and a millionaire. There were strong feelings around Goldwater, and he was also incredibly tactless in the way he ran the campaign. Normally, candidates are exquisitely sensitive to the importance of not alienating voters’ blocs and of finding ways of getting 50 percent plus a bit more of the population to vote for them.

It was no wonder that Johnson won an overwhelming victory against Goldwater. He alleged that Johnson was insufficiently resolute in opposing Communism, which contributed to Johnson’s escalation of America’s role in the Vietnam War after his reelection, which had very serious long-term consequences. 

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Defending the Poor

Johnson’s achievements were far greater than those of President Kennedy. He was an expert in congressional management.

It was he who ushered in the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Immigration Reform Act, which also has had immense and lasting consequences in really transforming the makeup of the American population up to the present. His War on Poverty program, which had begun before his reelection and then was accelerated afterward, argued for the “maximum feasible participation” by the poor.

Influence of Theorists

An important book published in 1962 was Michael Harrington’s The Other America. Johnson read Harrington’s book in 1963 and was very impressed by it; he created a whole array of programs designed to address poverty root and branch and get rid of it once and for all. This extraordinary phrase, “a war on poverty”, he said, carried the same kind of moral imperative as an actual war would anywhere.

Portrait of a young Lyndon Johnson
Johnson’s achievements were far greater than those of Kennedy. (Image: Unknown./Public domain)

Oscar Lewis, another influential social theorist at the time, had popularized that there’s something cultural about certain ways of life that tend to encourage and duplicate poverty. The phrase was: “no deferred gratification”. The lack of strong male role models, the way in which families break down, and whose children are much more likely to become delinquent and the mothers to become poor, and so on. 

Introducing Popular Policies

All these were the kinds of issues that the Johnson administration took on very seriously, and so programs like Head Start, the creation of the big Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Vista program, and the Peace Corps program became some of Johnson’s achievements. 

His hope was that this array of programs, all heavily funded by taxation, would be able to self-start a generation and gradually eliminate and displace the culture of poverty. Overcoming long-standing opposition from the American Medical Association, Congress also created Medicare and Medicaid, health insurance policies for the elderly and for the indigent.

What Happened to Lyndon Johnson’s Legacy?

Well, all of these policies appeared to augur a great new future for America, but unfortunately, no sooner had they got underway than the inner-city race riots began. They severely undercut the good feeling that had been generated by the Civil Rights movement and also began to cast doubt on the question of whether the war on poverty programs wasn’t themselves a little bit utopian.

Thus, very serious questions were left about whether the programs were viable, and as the 1960s progressed more and more, American money and political energy were diverted into the Vietnam War, meaning that the social programs had to compete against this other war, rather than be the sole focus of the government’s administration.

This pattern of difficulties eventually brought down Lyndon Johnson.

Common Questions about Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty

Q: What were some of Lyndon Johnson’s achievements as a young politician?

Among Johnson’s achievements before his presidency, we can see an impressive record. He had a term in Congress, fought in World War II, became the Senate majority leader, and was the vice president to John F. Kennedy.

Q: How did Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, impact Lyndon Johnson?

The Other America deeply affected Johnson. After reading it, he became determined to eliminate poverty once and for all. That is why we see acts and programs such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Reform Act, Head Start, the creation of the big Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Vista program, and the Peace Corps program.

Q: Why did Johnson’s Legacy fail to last?

The beginning of the inner-city race riots was what started to stall Johnson’s achievements. After that, many started to question the practicality of Johnson’s war on poverty in the first place. That, combined with the massive sources being sent to the Vietnam War, prevented his legacy from lasting as long as he had intended for them.

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