The Great Society ~ An Impossible Dream?

Christians are supposed to care about their neighbors and share the fruits of their labors with those who are in-need, are they not?

What do I know about anything? I’m just a retired senior citizen whose biggest responsibility now is in taking care of his little great granddaughter following daycare each day. But I have a vision, a dream actually, one that has taken me a lifetime to develop.

My dream is of an honorable, righteous, and caring United States of America — a nation in which education and knowledge are valued above material possessions and show- manship — a nation in which politicians care more about what is good for their constituents than about getting themselves reelected. I dream of a time to come when long-range consider- ations will trump the desire for immediate gratification, when the good for the many outweighs the good for the few and when workers are valued over corporate profits. In my dream, Americans will one day wake up to the realization that there is nowhere else to go and that we must honor future generations with good stewardship of the planet’s resources.

As a veteran of the Vietnam War, I remember coming home to jeers rather than cheers. After our trans-Pacific chartered flight touched down at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, we were advised to change quickly into civilian clothes and to exit the airport individually by side doors, coming back later for connecting flights to our home cities. It was January 1970 and the headlines were all about the recent My Lai Massacre and the pending trial of Lt. William Calley, the platoon leader who had ordered the killings. Those of us in uniform weren’t too popular back then. Our former Commander-In-Chief, Lyndon Baines Johnson, wasn’t either.

Being a military officer, I was more conservative in my political views back then. I had cast an absentee ballot while still in Vietnam for Richard Nixon, and I was pleased to know that he had been elected. My future in-laws, however, had been devastated by Johnson’s announcement early the previous year that he would not run again. They were Texas Yellowdawg Democrats. But, looking back on that time, I’m sorry now that LBJ’s unpopularity did in. He is remembered today by some historians as having been one of our greatest presidents owing to his legislative victories for the common man. I see him now in a very different light.

Serving out what remained of John F. Kennedy’s one term as president, Johnson completed the unfinished work of JFK’s New Frontier. He pushed through two very important pieces of legislation. First, the Civil Rights Bill that JFK promised to sign was passed into law. He also signed into law the omnibus Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The law created the Office of Economic Opportunity aimed at attacking the roots of American poverty. A Job Corps was established to provide valuable vocational training. And Head Start, a preschool program designed to help disadvantaged students arrive at kindergarten ready to learn was put into place. The Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) was set up as a domestic Peace Corps. Schools in impoverished American regions would now receive volunteer teaching attention. Federal funds were sent to struggling communities to attack unemployment and illiteracy.

Campaigning in 1964, Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” He challenged Americans to build a “Great Society” that would eliminate the troubles of the poor. He won a decisive victory over his archconservative Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater of Arizona. American liberalism was at high tide. It became a progressive era.

Some of Johnson’s Great Society legislative accomplishments were: Medicare which was created to offset the costs of health care for the nation’s elderly; the Voting Rights Act which banned literacy tests and other discriminatory methods of denying suffrage to African Americans; the Immigration Act which ended discriminatory quotas based on ethnic origin; the Wilderness Protection Act which saved 9.1 million acres of forestland from industrial development; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which provided major funding for American public schools; the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities which used public money to fund artists and galleries; an Omnibus Housing Act which provided funds to construct low-income housing. In addition during Johnson’s years as president, Congress tightened pollution controls with stronger Air and Water Quality Acts, and standards were raised for safety in consumer products.

Unfortunately, much of the money Johnson might have spent on these social programs was siphoned off by the war in Southeast Asia. This began to overshadow his domestic achievements. He found himself maligned by conservatives for his domestic policies and by liberals for his hawkish stance on Vietnam. By 1968, his hopes of leaving a legacy of domestic reform were in serious jeopardy.

So, where are we today with respect to being a great society? Medicare is still paying some of the medical needs of seniors, but that’s largely funded by retirees’ own contributions before they retire and conservatives now in Congress want to turn it into a voucher program. As for the Voting Rights Act, Congress has reauthorized it five times. But Republican controlled states now, through redistricting done even mid-census which has been ruled Constitutional by the conservative Supreme Court, have found legal ways to undermine the concept of one-man-one-vote. The Immigration Act of 1965 is still in-effect. But with so much controversy over what to do about the many illegal immigrants flowing into the country from south of the border, many conservatives are grumbling and want it stuck or substantially changed in any agreement on dealing with illegal immigrants. The Wilderness Protection Act has brought huge tracts of land under federal protection and management, but private interests continue to press and erode the sanctity of these area. One good example is the pressure being brought by the oil industry and citizens of Alaska who benefit from royalties paid for drilling and extracting oil to expand drilling rights. Funding for the National Endowment for Arts and Humanities has suffered severe cuts year after year since 1980, and there have been continuous attacks against it by conservatives. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been revised by Congress.  It is now known as No Child Left Behind, a punitive system requiring states to conduct yearly testing to qualify for federal funds. The government, however, has fails to compensate states for this testing mandate.  The Omnibus Housing Act has evolved into the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. Anyone who feels that they have been discriminated against with respect to where they want to live can file a free claim with HUD. But discrimination in housing still persists. Cities and local communities still find legal ways to prohibit or restrict access to homes and apartments.

Perhaps the best way to determine whether America is really the generous land of equal opportunity and social justice that we like to think it is, we should look at what we spend for social programs as a percent of our GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the total amount of money made in a year by the production and sale of all goods and services. Comparing this to the amount of spending calculated in the same way for other countries gives us a good idea of where we actually stand. See the graphic below, which was generated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD works to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.  It uses a wealth of information on a broad range of topics to help governments promote prosperity and fight poverty,3417,en_36734052_36734103_1_1_1_1_1,00.html.

Look at the Nordic nation of Sweden at the bottom right on the graphic. Sweden’s GDP per capita is little more than half what ours is, yet they commit twice the percent of their GDP to the welfare of their citizens. They have achieved an enviable standard of living under a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits. They benefit from an extensive social welfare system which includes a ceiling on health care costs, education subsidies and childcare, maternity and paternity, yes, paternity leave. They have an old-age pension program and universal sick leave among other benefits. The country has a modern distribution system, excellent internal and external communications, and a skilled labor force. Theirs is truly a great society

Now look at Norway at the top, center-right. Norway has a greater GDP per capita than ours and commits ten percent more of its GDP to the welfare of its citizens. Education is free through the university level in Norway. Its health care system includes free hospital care, physicians’ compensation, cash benefits during illness and pregnancy, and other medical and dental plans. There is a public pension system By the way, there are more millionaires in Norway per capita than in any other nation in the world. Wealth there is more evenly distributed.

“Yeah, but what about taxes?” you might ask. Aren’t we overburdened with taxes to pay for social programs and other government waste? The answer is no. From all sources, both government and charity, our spending on anti-poverty programs is barely greater than three percent of our GDP. Scholarly studies show the United States to be an outlier in comparison to attitudes and actions taken by other wealthy nations. We have high poverty rates, low public social spending but high private social expenditures, and a rather strong belief that people are poor because of laziness or lack of will The people of most modern states simply do not view poverty in the same way that we do.

Consider the following chart showing our tax burden compared to the rest of the world.

So, where’s the trick? How are these facts skewed to make Americans seem selfish? The answer is that they aren’t.

I find it curious that many in Congress, to reduce budget deficits, favor gutting social programs over increasing revenues collected from the wealthiest of Americans and highly profitable corporations. Still, social conservatives insist that America is a Christian nation. Christians are supposed to care about their neighbors and share the fruits of their labors with those who are in-need, are they not? Yet America, compared to all other nations, is clearly one of the least generous with our own citizens.

So, is my dream an impossible dream? I don’t know. But as my dear grandmother used to say, “Charity starts at home.” Maybe it wasn’t so much that her heart wasn’t in the right place; as an extended family back in the 50s and 60s, there wasn’t much left over after the bills were paid and the groceries were bought. Maybe she just expected more from those who were better off. Maybe, after the vast majority of Americans whose disposable incomes have been shrinking for the past several decades wake up and realize that the wealthiest aren’t really job creators, that trickle-down economics should really be called percolate-up economics, the progressive era that was the Johnson years will be reborn.

Please feel free to comment on this posting whether you agree or disagree.

Published in: on July 18, 2011 at 8:04 am  Comments (7)  

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  1. Well said….LBJ made many mistakes…but he also tried so hard to do some good. I LOVED that he grew up poor, had to work hard and yet when he saw the poverty and hunger that his little students in Catoula Texas suffered from…he vowed to try to do that. I always take my 4th grade students to the LBJ Library and when I hear that story in the introductory movie, tears roll down my cheeks. Who now talks about the poor with that kind of compassion? and understanding. My grandparents loved LBJ for bringing electricity to the facountry in West Texas…do you realize what electricity meant to a farm or ranch wife….the difference between a life of service or a life of servitude. LBJ made many mistakes and sure, many of his programs were not perfect but they were an honest attempt of follow Christs commandment to us to love and serve one another as stated in Matthew 25:40. We are a rich country, but we are a stingy people….I have been to Sweden and it is beautiful and the elderly there are loved and cared for. Yes there is crime and it is not perfect, but my great aunts had healthy and vigourous old ages, cared for by their community….Public service is a requirement of college life and my one great aunt had a steady procession of handsome young college students to take her swimming for her arthitis 4 times a week….they got to talk to a delightful lady who lived in Mexico for 20 years in the Swedish embassy and she got to keep up with the young folks. What a difference from the segregated life the elderly live here…..Kent this belongs in the Dallas Morning News View Points…or guest column!!

  2. Your column spoke my thoughts, touched on several of my core beliefs. I am a ‘political infant’, relatively speaking, but my interest was piqued in 2000, then 2004, now firmly from the election of our current President onward. Presented with info going backward, I start to get a clearer picture, the rise+fall of history. I am no longer amazed @ the hazardous antics of certain ‘cells’ of thought (b/c they are certainly not ‘schools’–they want to destroy those, too), the gambles these power-drunk Mad Men take, how they play w/people’s lives+livelihood. It saddens me, my lack of surprise…But this IS the highest-stakes poker game that the US government has seen since, well…ever? Except for crises like nuclear stand-offs, which I’ve never had to endure in my lifetime, ironically thanks to Gorbachev, who negotiated reduction due to ‘lack of funding’. *now where did they go?* I even traveled to the USSR in the summer of ’91 as a student ambassador (I returned to the US approx 2 weeks before Communism officially fell)…And, yes, I do thank God every day that I wake up + Obama is President, a man who realizes the stakes of the Game + I, for one, feel like he is in there, behind closed doors, fighting for US, the Majority who fall below the top 90th percentile in this bleeping 3-Card Monte…As a side note (yet how can it be ignored, really, @ this pt?), I do not understand those who do not stand for the Christian values that they espouse, all while spreading hate. Of their fellow man. Who is suffering right beside them–practically ALL of us have taken a hit, some fatal, others survivable but life-altering. It’s a crying shame what was done to us, by some of the very same who claim to represent us (or those that they truly respresent who have yet to take the blame + suffer the repercussions right alongside of us–or, better yet, worse). But–no. No, they are unscathed, some might even say fine–or better than fine, great. Fabulous. Trippin’ the light fantastic. At our expense, but to their credit. Oh, you say you have some quantifiable evidence to the contrary? I’d love to see it. I have yet to be presented with any credible, redeemable statements that this is not, in fact, the case…I’m all ears, just like our President.
    PS Miss Wayne, I appreciated your comments, as well, esp. about your great-aunts! I agree that Mr. Garry’s columns should be published, some might even say ‘syndicated’. (:

  3. Opa, thanks for your wonderful article. I do wish that it was printed in Times Magazine. Perhaps it would awaken us from our deep sleep or better yet, give us pause to think of how we are sinking here in America.
    I keep wondering if it is due to greed—monetari ly or power plays.
    I get the feeling that we have lost our way and cannot find our way out of this dark tunnel. I do know that we have Christians in our nation but I do not think that as a whole, we are a Christian nation.

    I simply cannot believe that we have allowed education in our country to slip so far downward and I wonder how we will ever get back on track again. What happened??? What happened to our Arts & Humaniies??? I track back in my mind of when this downward trend started and thankfully my mind is alert and I can sort of pinpoint where it all started. But I really do not understand how we got to be so mean spirited & hateful.
    I really appreciated reading Carol’s & Krista’s comments. At least I know that I am not alone in my concerns & thoughts. I was born in a post depression era and thankfully I have been blessed to see many changes take place here in America and cannot believe the political climate that has taken hold. I will take a copy of your blog and share it with my pastor. You really should send your article to Time Magazine or better yet to Fareed Zakaria. I do not think it would be widely read here in the Dallas Morning News as most of the citizens do not subscribe to a “daily.”

    Keep writing. I am listening.

    Nancy Zacharias

  4. I agree with Nancy….please see if you can send it to Fareed or the Times….

  5. Kent…. thank you, again, for your service to our country. Although I volunteered for duty in Viet Nam, the Navy disapproved my request. But I did experience, at least to some extent, the same type of negative response you did upon returning home.

    You seem to have forgotten to “defriend” me on Facebook and delete my email address from your distribution list. I’m guessing merely an oversight.

  6. Mr. Garry, your commentaries always impress and each time leave me with more to think about than when I arrive.

    I live in the south (Florida) and am friends with and work around a large group of conservative Christians who, for the most part, tolerate me for being a Democrat and Catholic, neither of which are looked upon with much respect or dignity around here. As an aside, I have actually been asked at various times “How do you reconcile yourself with that (being a Dem and Catholic)” and, after the Kerry/Bush debates in 2006, upon finding out I was both, was actually asked “Well, are you a Christian?”.

    As an avid follower of Harry Truman, I understand that politics, as a vocation, has always been ugly. The stories of his political rise are legendary and the things that were said about him and his family, as well as most politicians of his time, were vile. History is rife with examples of how political agendas can affect the mainstream population and, in certain situations, turn them against each other in the most barbaric ways (McCarthy anyone?) and I believe we are almost to that point now; where the vitriolic hatred of one’s affiliation will begin to outweigh common sense and drive many to violence. I hope we don’t get there but fear we are right on the cusp of something that will potentially effect us for generations.

    The point of my commentary is that I’m looking for a more clear understanding about how Republicans, who are most closely associated with being faithful followers of our great constitution and Christ, came to be labeled as such, when nearly all actions, and history, point to the contrary? As your column points out, how can you be in favor of cutting entitlement programs, redistricting states to skew voting favor, make cuts to education and programs for the poor and still call yourself a real Christian?

    Republicans, and I hate to paint with too large of a brush here so please allow me some latitude, have been late to nearly every social program in the 20th century including voters rights, civil rights and social programs for all. Harry Truman gave a speech about civil rights as being constitutionally guaranteed to all regardless of race, color or creed in Sikeston, MO in 1942!

    I am far from a perfect Christian and I don’t believe I have the ability or the right to judge anyone’s heart, but it seems that Christ taught social consciousness as one of his core beliefs and I think the record shows that Democrats, as a platform, seem to walk that walk better than Republicans.

    Where did we go wrong?

    Again, thank you for your column and allowing this rant. Please continue to post as often as possible.



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    The Great Society ~ An Impossible Dream? | The World According to Opa

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