What Is Great Society?

Great Society was a set of domestic policy initiatives designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice in the United States, reduce crime and improve the environment. It was launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to 1965. Johnson first used the term “Great Society” at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, on May 7, 1964, and outlined the program in detail at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964.

Understanding Great Society

Great Society, which has been compared to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, produced Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, all of which remain government programs. It remains the largest social reform plan in modern history.

Great Society and The War on Poverty

In March 1964, Johnson introduced the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Economic Opportunity Act to Congress. Johnson addressed the underprivileged and the poverty cycle by creating a Job Corps and asking state and local governments to create 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. 

Great Society and Healthcare

When Johnson took office, many of the elderly and the poor were uninsured. When Johnson became President, Medicare and Medicaid became law. Medicare covered hospital and physician costs for the elderly, and Medicaid covered healthcare costs for those receiving cash assistance from the government. 

Great Society and Education Reform

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 was low-income.

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. The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 provided federal funds to cities for urban development for cities that met minimum housing standards. The Act provided better access to home mortgages and a controversial rent-subsidy program.

Johnson also supported arts and humanities by signing the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act in 1965. Various environmental initiatives set water quality standards and vehicle emission standards, and laws were passed to protect wildlife, rivers, historic landmarks and to create scenic trails.

Great Society and Vietnam

Johnson’s efforts were overshadowed by the Vietnam War, when he was forced to divert funds from the war on poverty to the War in Vietnam. Some Americans did not support Johnson's government-funded programs to help the poor, and he is known more as the president who forced America into an unwinnable war that resulted in over 58,000 American military fatalities than a champion of initiatives to solve social ills.