Great Society: What it Was, Legacy and FAQ

What Was the Great Society?

The Great Society was a set of domestic policy initiatives, programs, and legislation introduced in the 1960s in the U.S. These Great Society programs were intended to reduce poverty levels, reduce racial injustice, reduce crime, and improve the environment. Great Society policies were launched by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson between 1964 and 1965.

Johnson first laid out his plan for what he coined a "Great Society" during a speech at the University of Michigan. Johnson vowed that this collection of programs would lead to "an end to poverty and racial injustice."

Although Johnson's policies and programs targeted education, workforce training, healthcare, food security, and voting and civil rights, they were centrist in their approach.

Key Takeaways

  • The Great Society was a set of domestic policy initiatives designed under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
  • Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, all remain in 2021.
  • Education, civil rights, healthcare, and education were four important items on Johnson's agenda.
  • These policies established greater civil and voting rights, greater environmental protections, and increased aid to public schools.
  • President Johnson's initiatives were comparable to President Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

Understanding the Great Society

The initiatives that comprised the Great Society have been compared, in their scope and their intent, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs, enacted in the U.S. between 1933 and 1939.

The Great Society is considered one of the most extensive social reform plans in modern history. In addition, Johnson's efforts helped establish greater civil and voting rights, greater environmental protections, and increased aid to public schools.

Great Society Programs


In March 1964, Johnson introduced the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Economic Opportunity Act to Congress. Johnson wanted to address the underprivileged members of the U.S. by creating a Job Corps. He also asked state and local governments to develop work training programs. 

A national work-study program provided funding for 140,000 Americans to attend college. Other initiatives included community action programs, government-sponsored programs that trained volunteers to serve poor communities, loans to employers to hire the unemployed, funding for agricultural co-ops, and help for parents re-entering the workforce. 


When Johnson took office, many aging adults and those living paycheck to paycheck or living below the federal poverty level in the U.S. lacked any health insurance. When Johnson became the President, the Medicare and Medicaid programs became part of U.S. law.

The Great Society contributed to an increase in life expectancies, from 66.6 years for men and 73.1 for women years in 1964 to 73.2 and 79.1 respectively in 2021.

Medicare helped to provide coverage for hospital and physician visits for aging adults; the Medicaid program helped cover healthcare costs for those suffering from poverty and receiving assistance from the government. 


Project Head Start began as an eight-week summer camp. It was operated by the Office of Economic Opportunity, and 500,000 children aged from three to five received preschool education.

In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed, which guaranteed federal funding for education in school districts where the majority of students were living in low-income households.

Johnson also created additional support for the arts and humanities by signing the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act in 1965.

Environmental Protections

Various environmental initiatives set water quality standards and vehicle emission standards. Laws were also passed to create scenic trails and protect wildlife, rivers, and historic landmarks.

Project Head Start, which began under President Johnson, supports children's growth in a positive learning environment through various services from early development educational development to overall family health. Today Head Start programs reach over a million children every year in the United States.

Consumer Protection

The Great Society established several laws and agencies to protect U.S. consumers. In 1972, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was formed to "protect the public against unreasonable risks of injuries and deaths associated with consumer products."

The CPSC creates and enforces standards, restricts unsafe consumer products, oversees the recall and replacement of products, and provides education on consumer safety. Most products except for motor vehicles, food, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and firearms fall under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The Great Society also established the Child Protection Act of 1966 to protect children from dangerous toys and products. Under the act, the federal government possesses the authority to define potential hazards and issue warning labels on hazardous toys and household items.

The Legacy of the Great Society

Great Society policies also focused on urban renewal. Following World War II, many major cities were in poor condition, and affordable housing was hard to find, particularly for the disadvantaged and underprivileged. The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 provided federal funds to cities to invest in urban development that met minimum housing standards. The Act provided better access to home mortgages and a rent-subsidy program.

Johnson's Great Society policies birthed Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. All of which remain government programs in 2021. In addition, Johnson's policies helped create the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts to support and fund cultural institutions necessary for a healthy society. These programs fund and support libraries, public television and radio, museums, and archives.

The Great Society programs and policies inspire, educate, and lift Americans out of poverty decades after they were put into place.

Special Considerations

Johnson's government-funded programs aimed to reduce poverty and improve society, and his initiatives increased education levels and reduced inequality among Americans. Unfortunately, some of Johnson's efforts were overshadowed by the Vietnam War.

As the conflict waged on, Johnson was forced to divert funds to promote education and help underprivileged members of society to the war that claimed over 58,000 American lives. America's involvement in Vietnam tarnished Johnson's reputation despite his efforts to improve life for millions of Americans.

What Is the Definition of Great Society?

The definition of Great Society harkens to a group of government policy initiatives created in the 1960s by Lyndon B. JOhnson that were designed to improve the lives of Americans.

What Were Some of the Programs of the Great Society?

Project Head Start, the National Endowment for the Arts, Medicare, and Medicaid, are all programs that were part of the Great Society initiatives.

Who Urged Congress to Pass the Civil Rights Act as Part of His Vision for a Great Society?

Before his untimely death, President John Kennedy asked Congress in 1963 for a comprehensive civil rights bill. When Lyndon B. Johnson became the president after Kennedy's death, he urged Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act as part of his (and the late Kennedy) vision for a "Great Society."

Article Sources
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  1. LBJ Presidential Library. "Remarks at the University of Michigan, May 22, 1964."

  2. National Archives. "The Great Society: Extending the New Deal?," Page 1.

  3. Fordham University. "President Lyndon B. Johnson: The War on Poverty, March 1964."

  4. Bill of Rights Institute. "Was the Great Society Successful?"

  5. Centers for Disease Control. "Life Expectancy in the U.S. Dropped for the Second Year in a Row in 2021."

  6. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "CMS' Program History."

  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Head Start Timeline."

  8. Congressional Research Service. "The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as Amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): A Primer," Page 1.

  9. National Endowment for the Humanities. "National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965."

  10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Head Start Programs."

  11. United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Who We Are - What We Do for You."

  12. CQ Authority. "Child Protection."

  13. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Questions and Answers about HUD."

  14. "Vietnam War."

  15. U.S. Department of Labor. "Legal Highlight: The Civil Rights Act of 1964."

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