The Great Society at 50: The triumph and the tragedy
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Event Summary

Fifty years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson laid the foundation for a Great Society. After 50 years and $20 trillion, are we at the end of the road? On Tuesday, a panel of public policy experts gathered at AEI to discuss what America has gained and lost since President Johnson's Great Society address.

As AEI's Nicholas Eberstadt, author of a new study titled "The Great Society at 50," explained to the audience, the legacy of the Great Society has profoundly reworked our understanding of the limits of governance in America. He pointed to two specific legacies: the civil rights campaign, which eliminated legalized racial discrimination, and the creation of a brave new welfare state that eradicated 1960s-style material deprivation and financed a "tangle of pathologies" throughout American society: welfare dependency, flight from work, and family breakdown.

Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution countered Eberstadt's point that the Great Society financed those pathologies, arguing that other extraneous factors such as the women's movement and deindustrialization of America could potentially explain these trends. She furthermore reprimanded the US government for caring more about the completion of audit forms over properly understanding the successes and failures of the social welfare program.

The Cato Institute's Michael Tanner commended the civil rights analysis in Eberstadt's recent study, elaborating that it spilled over to other minorities groups as well. Tanner also questioned the War on Poverty's increasing focus on inputs for antipoverty programs, arguing that these programs only helped sustain poverty rather than allowing impoverished individuals to lead a fully actualized life; the net result is that we have neglected better alternatives. While panelists had diverse views of the legacy of the Great Society, they collectively emphasized the importance of determining the best practice for mitigating poverty in America.
--Alex Coblin

Event Description

May 22, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” address. The speech was a milestone in American history, heralding fundamental changes that advanced racial equality while also decisively expanding the scale and scope of government. It is no exaggeration to say that the Great Society created the foundation for America’s modern welfare state. Half a century later, what is the Great Society’s legacy?

This question is the centerpiece of a recent report by Nicholas Eberstadt. Please join the author and a panel of public policy experts as they discuss the 50-year legacy of the Great Society and its impact on America.


Read more on the Great Society here and here.


1:45 PM

2:00 PM
Nicholas Eberstadt, AEI
Elaine Kamarck, Brookings Institution
Michael Tanner, Cato Institute
Robert Doar, AEI

3:00 PM

Event Contact Information

For more information, please contact Alex Coblin at [email protected], 202.419.5215.

Media Contact Information

For media inquiries, please contact [email protected], 202.862.5829.

Speaker Biographies

Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at AEI, where he studies and evaluates how free enterprise and improved federal policies and programs can reduce poverty and provide opportunities for vulnerable Americans. Before joining AEI, Doar worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration as commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, where he administered 12 public assistance programs for the largest local social-services agency in the United States. Programs included welfare, food assistance, public health insurance, home care for the elderly and disabled, energy assistance, child support enforcement services, adult protective services and domestic violence assistance, and help for people living with HIV/AIDS. Before joining the Bloomberg administration, Doar was New York State commissioner of social services, helping make New York a model for the implementation of welfare reform.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and demographer by training, holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at AEI. He is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, a member of the visiting committee at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a member of the Global Leadership Council at the World Economic Forum. He researches and writes extensively on economic development, foreign aid, global health, demographics, and poverty. He is the author of numerous monographs and articles on North and South Korea, East Asia, and countries of the former Soviet Union. He is the author of “A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic” (Templeton, 2012) and the AEI monograph “The Great Society at Fifty: The Triumph and The Tragedy,” to be released in May 2014. 

Elaine Kamarck is a senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution and the founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management. She is also senior editor of FixGov, a blog focused on finding realistic solutions to domestic political and governance challenges. In the 1980s, she helped found the New Democrat movement that resulted in Bill Clinton’s presidency. As a senior staffer in the White House, she created the National Performance Review, the largest government reform effort in the second half of the 20th century. After the White House, she spent 15 years teaching government management and American politics at Harvard.   She is the author of  “How Change Happens—or Doesn’t: The Politics of US Public Policy” (Lynne Rienner, 2013). Her most recent book on politics is “Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System” (Brookings, 2009) and her most recent book on government organization is “The End of Government . . . as We Know It: Making Public Policy Work” (Lynne Rienner, 2007).

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, where he heads research into a variety of domestic policies, with particular emphasis on health care reform, social welfare policy, and Social Security. He recently coauthored Cato’s “The Work versus Welfare Tradeoff: 2013” and has also written papers on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Affordable Care Act. He coedited “Replacing Obamacare: The Cato Institute on Health Care Reform,” a compilation of Cato’s recent work on health care reform and Obamacare. He is also the author of numerous Cato books on public policy, including “Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution” (2007) and “The Poverty of Welfare: Helping Others in Civil Society” (2003). His writings have appeared in major American newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. Tanner writes a weekly column for National Review Online and is a contributing columnist with the New York Post.


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