Celebrating Our Great Society

03/24/2015 03:22 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2015

We are now celebrating the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's Great Society, enacted for the most part from 1964-66, perhaps the greatest legislative achievement of any president since FDR and the New Deal.

We know how FDR's New Deal improved the lives of millions, literally preventing tens of thousands from starving to death during the Great Depression, and giving millions more a useful and productive public service job when there were none to be had in the private sector.

But the results of the Great Society are perhaps more mixed. That's only if we wonder what might have happened if the U.S. economy was an ideological utopia, which didn't go through its cycles of boom and bust, or the Vietnam War, or an Arab Oil Embargo, or 5 recession since 1980--the housing bubble and Great Recession being the latest examples.

Many of the programs were stymied by those events that took money away from social programs; in particular the Office of Economic Opportunity that funded many publicly funded programs similar to the Depression's WPA. Conservatives' ire is particularly directed at the spending for anti-poverty programs that were supposed to eliminate poverty, but were in fact meant to give the poorest a 'leg up' in their race to escape poverty.

Spending to help the poor doubled from 1965-68, and within 10 years the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line declined to 12 percent from 20 percent. Those were also the years of highest economic growth of the middle class. The rate has fluctuated greatly in the past 50 years. According to the census, 15.9 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2012, which is just a couple of points lower than where the Census estimates it stood in 1965.

We really don't know, for instance, how many jobs were created by the Office of Economic Opportunity. Those were also boom years when President Johnson dropped the top marginal tax rate from 91 to 71 percent. More than 4 years of 6 and 7 percent Gross National Product growth followed, employing anyone that wanted a job. The U.S. Gross National Product (Since 1991 U.S. has used Gross Domestic Product as a more accurate measure of U.S. output.) rose 10 percent in the first year of the tax cut, and economic growth averaged a rate of 4.5 percent from 1961 to 1968, says Wikipedia.

Johnson's tax cut measure triggered what one historian described as "the greatest prosperity of the postwar years," according to the Washington Post. GNP increased by 7, 8 and 9 percent in 1964 to 1966, respectively. The unemployment rate fell below 5 percent. But the OEO did much more, as did most of the Great Society programs.

Do we really have to be reminded of the Clear Air and Water Acts that have kept our water and air cleaner than they would have been otherwise? Or the Civil and Voting Rights Acts that banned discrimination and abolished the blatant ban on African Americans voting in the South? Or the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid that has reduced the poverty rate of seniors from 1 in 7 living below the poverty line in 1965 to 1 out of 3 in 2013?

We also now have the consumer protection laws such as the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act requiring labeling of dangerous chemicals in cigarettes, and the National Highway Safety Administration setting safety standards for our highways? Almost all of the Great Society programs have saved or improved the lives of millions of Americans.

That is something that can only be measured in non-economic ways. Head Start, for instance, has served more than 31 million children from birth to age 5 since 1965. In 2012-13, 1.13 million children and pregnant women were served by Head Start, according to the program. The vast majority - 82 percent - were children ages 3 and 4.

And how do we measure the value of its cultural contributions, such as PBS, the Public Broadcasting System that has 987 stations nationwide - most locally owned and operated - that broadcast NPR programming?

The Great Society also led to the fruition of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and created the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is one of the largest arts and culture funders in the United States.

These institutions and programs of the Great Society have in fact given a national voice to our hopes and dreams, because a nation that doesn't care for its citizens' hopes and dreams is a nation that has no future.

Harlan Green © 2015