Great Society

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, and 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.

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.

Types of Great Society Policies


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 of the elderly and underprivileged members of the U.S. lacked any health insurance. When Johnson became the President, the Medicare and Medicaid programs became part of U.S. law. Medicare helped to provide coverage for hospital and physician visits for the elderly; 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 protect wildlife, rivers, historic landmarks and create scenic trails.

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.

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."

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  2. National Archives. "The Great Society: Extending the New Deal?" Page 1. Accessed Dec. 16, 2022.

  3. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Questions and Answers about HUD." Accessed Dec. 16, 2021.

  4. Fordham University. "President Lyndon B. Johnson: The War on Poverty, March 1964." Accessed Dec. 16, 2021.

  5. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "CMS' Program History." Accessed Dec. 16, 2021.

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Head Start Timeline." Accessed Dec. 16, 2021.

  7. Congressional Research Service. "The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as Amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): A Primer," Page 1. Accessed Dec. 16, 2021.

  8. National Endowment for the Humanities. "National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965." Accessed Dec. 16, 2021.

  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Head Start Programs." Accessed Dec. 16, 2021.

  10. "Vietnam War." Accessed Dec. 16, 2021.

  11. U.S. Department of Labor. "Legal Highlight: The Civil Rights Act of 1964." Accessed Dec. 16, 2021.