“The federal government fought the war on poverty,” Ronald Reagan once quipped, “and poverty won.” He was slamming Lyndon Johnson—one of the men to whom Joe Biden has been frequently compared. Reagan’s comments indicated that the Great Society, however noble its aspirations, not only failed but also led to unintended negative consequences. Biden faces some of the same perils from his attempts to dramatically reframe the size and scope of government, via the $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill and his $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
The writer and linguist John McWhorter captured this sentiment about some of the unintended consequences of the Great Society well, writing in 2007 that “the Great Society sowed the seeds for a Black identity based on being bad, and treating it as enlightened to pull poor Black women out of the job market and pay them to have children instead. Generations of young people grew up in fatherless communities in which full-time employment—i.e., conformity to a long-established American norm—was rare.” The Biden administration’s recent move toward unwinding the practice of requiring people to work or perform public service to receive Medicaid coverage is indicative of how Biden policies risk evoking a similar backlash: a well-intended idea that somehow perpetuates dependency.
Even those who believe LBJ laid the groundwork for a more compassionate nation have to concede that the Great Society promised “an end to poverty and racial injustice,” which makes it, by definition, a failure. It was also an electoral loser for decades. Although Vietnam was the primary culprit, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were both elected, at least in part, because voters wanted law and order amidst a rising crime rate and heightened cultural anxiety and urban unrest. There was also the sense that the welfare state was too large and that big government liberalism had overreached its mandate.