10/15/2010 06:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why the Great Recession is Not Another Great Depression

What's keeping this Great Recession from becoming another Great Depression?

The Great Society.

That's something for those who support - or question - the role of government in bolstering our economy and protecting our people and our democracy should keep in mind.

True, things aren't great. We have seen the highest poverty rate in 15 years and one of the greatest year-to-year increase in poverty during Barack Obama's first year as President. We are experiencing a stubborn 9.6 unemployment rate where 15 million Americans are out of work and seeking it, and millions more idled Americans have given up. But without the Great Society Programs, things would be much worse and the nation might be in a state of shock that would rival the turmoil of 1929.

Take food stamps, the Great Society program to relieve hunger in America. Since the recession started in December 2007 the number of Americans on food stamps has climbed from 27.6 million to 41.8 million in 2009. Newt Gingrich may mock the program, but without it there would likely be 14 million more Americans in lines at soup kitchens.

Take health care. Medicaid enrollment has jumped by almost six million since the start of the recession, from 42.8 in 2007 to 48.5 in 2009. And the number of individuals seeking help in the Great Society's Community Health Centers is up by 25 percent from 16 to 20 million over that same period.

Take Social Security. Lyndon Johnson wanted to put in place an income maintenance program, but the political hurdles were too high. So he used the biggest ATM in town. He persuaded the Congress to enact a minimum Social Security benefit and adjust all rates accordingly. That action and its ripple effect in 1966 lifted 2.5 million elderly Americans from poverty. Today, the impact of that minimum benefit concept on Social Security lifts 20 million Americans above the poverty level, including more than 13 million elderly, more than 5 million disabled and more than one million children.

Take Unemployment Insurance. Johnson proposed a minimum benefit increase to 50 percent of pay for most wage earners, two 26 week extensions depending on economic conditions, federal grants to states, and an increase in payroll taxes to pay for these adjustments. Unfortunately he was unable to get his proposals enacted during his term, but a year later in 1970 the Congress revamped unemployment insurance in line with his proposal and that is essentially the system in place today.

So without these Great Society Programs, there would be millions more Americans living in poverty and the nation would face an even more catastrophic situation. These programs are proof positive of the value of government action to aid the most vulnerable in our society.

Why can't Democrats cite these programs and LBJ's Great Society as an example of how important government intervention and safety nets are, not only as a matter of social justice, but also to preserve our democracy and avoid disruption, perhaps violence, driven by unemployment, hunger and poverty?

Of all people, one would think that Barack Obama, whose path to the presidency was paved by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and other LBJ civil rights legislation) would cite these examples of the importance of government intervention. It's time for all Democrats to dust off their reluctance to mention LBJ and help our people understand that government is key in times like these, that in 2010 the Great Society is the difference between the Great Recession and another Great Depression.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Founder and Chair of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter Administration, and served from 1965 to 1969 as chief domestic affairs assistant to president Lyndon B. Johnson.