Graduates at the University of Michigan were the first to hear Johnson publicly outline his grandiose scheme for federal intervention that would end poverty, feed the hungry, provide care for the elderly, knock down racial barriers, improve education and promote civic culture. “For in your time,” said LBJ, “we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.”
LBJ wasted no time pushing his ambitious and expensive agenda through a compliant Congress dominated by liberal Democrats. Over the course of a little more than a year, Mr. Johnson signed a raft of Great Society legislation, beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Next came the Economic Opportunity Act, which produced the War on Poverty’s many offspring; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the first federal incursion into education, and amendments to the Social Security Act creating Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs.
Those graduates at the University of Michigan wouldn’t see the end of poverty in their time, but they saw their grandchildren saddled under a national debt now approaching $18 trillion. The Great Society welfare state entitlement programs remain the largest drivers of red ink at both the federal and state level. It gets worse as Obamacare, the inevitable capstone of the Great Society, kicks in (and “kick” is precisely the right word).
Most of the Great Society was designed to fight LBJ’s War on Poverty, the total cost of which has been the sum of $22 trillion in current dollars, as reckoned by the Heritage Foundation. The tally rises by about $1 trillion a year as more than 80 overlapping means-tested federal programs sap resources the country does not have. The $22 trillion figure is “three times the amount of money that the government has spent on all military wars in its history, from the Revolutionary War to the present,” says Heritage’s Robert Rector.
What do we have to show for all this federal largesse? The poverty rate hasn’t budged. Instead, we’ve seen the rise of multigenerational welfare dependency. For the $2 trillion the federal government has spent on education since 1965, test scores have plummeted and the achievement gap between minority students and their peers has barely budged. Families, the bedrock of an authentically great society, have suffered most in LBJ’s great social experiment. The overall out-of-wedlock birth rate has ballooned from 8 percent in the mid-1960s to more than 40 percent today; from 25 percent to 73 percent among blacks.
But that is just the beginning.
The United States could have saved money, grief and cynicism about government if it had copied then-Sen. George Aiken’s famous inexpensive, foolproof strategy for ending the costly war in Vietnam. He said the United States should declare victory, and come home.