From Opportunity to Entitlement

From The Mason Historiographiki

Jump to: navigation, search

Gareth Davies. From opportunity to entitlement : the transformation and decline of Great Society liberalism. Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, 1996. xii, 320 p. $17.95



Mary S. Linhart

The welfare programs of the sixties rested on a tradition of American liberal individualism. The tradition that motivated Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs also served as a basis of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Implicit and often explicit goals of Great Society programs were to provide opportunity to enable the poor to rise from poverty and assume their role in society. This was reflected in training programs, Head Start and VISTA.

Gareth Davies describes a revision of the approach to welfare that was manifested in programs advocated both by Richard Nixon and George McGovern. These new programs, neither of which were made into law, reflected the idea that the poor were entitled to assistance. In 1964, ‘liberals had shared the general tendency to equate dignity with self-sufficiency and to define dependency as its destructive opposite.’ In 1972, liberals tended to ‘define dignity as freed both from hardship and from the stigma attached to dependency.’ (235) One of the principle aspects of the ‘opportunity’ approach to welfare is that it was not aimed at all the poor but at the deserving poor. Decisions were made to determine who was deserving and who was not.

By the late sixties, there was belief that the Great Society was failing. Government spending could not keep up with both welfare expenditures and support of the Vietnam War. The ‘radicalism and redirection of black protest…helped most to discredit the principles of Great Society liberalism.’ The Vietnam War disrupted ‘the politics of liberalism’ and destroyed ‘the President’s authority and domestic vigor.’ (131) Riots in American cities were evidence that the problems of poverty were not being overcome. By 1968, President Johnson’s popularity was in steep decline. Other Democrats, like Senator McCarthy, decided to seek the Presidency. Once Johnson decided not to run, potential candidates like Kennedy and McGovern decided it was in their best interests to seek fresh solutions to poverty that were not connected with Johnsonian programs. Johnson’s ‘liberal detractors’ abandoned a ‘venerable tradition of liberal individualism and they did so with politically costly results.’ (243)--Mlinhart 12:36, 7 Mar 2006 (EST)

Prior Writer

The 1960’s were a time of tremendous societal upheaval and violence in the United States. Throughout America’s history, its leaders have had to deal with periods of rapid societal change that had no simple solution or answer. Unfortunately for Lyndon Johnson and his plan for assisting America’s poor to enhance their position in life, a number of societal problems unleashed their fury on the United States and led to the destruction of many of the Great Society programs that Johnson had fought so hard to have passed. Much of the success of the 89th Congress rapidly passed from memory or failed to receive the appropriations needed for implementation. Societal conflicts such as racial tensions, the escalation of the Vietnam conflict and unemployment due to the automation of industry all combined to erode the ability of the president to influence the path of Congress and his Democratic party to contend with these issues.

As Johnson’s approval rating plummeted to 39% in 1968 from a high of 69% just two years prior, the influence and respect that he had commanded after his overwhelming victory in the 1964 election had all but disappeared. The coalition of New Deal Liberals that he had so counted on in Congress now looked for new ideas and solutions to solve the problems facing America. As the midterm elections of 1966 showed, the American voters had also lost faith in Johnson’s ability to create solutions to solve the problems that society faced as the United States prepared to enter the 1970’s.

In his book From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism, Gareth Davies attempts to explain what brought about these changes in both the Democratic party and American society in general. For Davies, the rapid erosion of support Johnson’s traditional view for dealing with issues brought about by poverty and unemployment in America presents a situation that needs further examination. Davies believes that Johnson understood that any “…liberal political agenda could not be advanced unless it was seen to respect the nation’s dominant social philosophy.” (2) This philosophy was one that argued for public assistance for those willing to work for it. Of course, those incapable of working, along with the elderly were to receive payments without question. Indigence however was not an acceptable reason for receiving any sort of welfare payment. As the Vietnam War continued to take its toll on the nation, many in the Democratic party began to question this traditional view of welfare and assistance. Was it possible that poverty itself was the problem that needed to be solved? If money was instead provided directly to those in need, could the problems faced by the impoverished be brought to an end? What good was education if you had three kids to watch and could not go to work or receive the training needed to get a decent job? These are just some of the question that those who favored entitlement payments attempted to answer.

Davies begins his examination of these and other questions with a summary of this individualist tradition in America and the effect it had on the ability of the government to provided for those in need. Similar to the values held by FDR, Davies argues that Johnson believed that entitlement payments were not only wrong, but any good that occurred because of these payments was negated by the breakdown of the work ethic entitlement payments caused. Beginning with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Johnson began down a path that he would continue to follow throughout his presidency. Here, Davies argues, “The war on poverty was a classic product of that postwar liberal spirit whose constricted and enervated character has disappointed so many recent scholars.” (31) It was this creed of liberal individualism that still existed within Johnson that the guaranteed income movement would shortly break from.

However, as race continued to play a large factor in the debate over entitlement payments, Johnson continued to find himself isolated from many within his party. The violent turn that the black movement took in the summer of 1967 required that urban plight needed to be reexamined from a different perspective. After the Watts riot, a movement led by men such as Patrick Moynihan began to attack the Great Society and what it stood for. This group argued “…the poor were victims not of their own immorality but of society’s imperfection…” and insisted “… that middle-class Americans had no authority to make the rights of the poor contingent upon the acceptability of their behavior.” (88)

As Johnson continued to face the defeat of his various Great Society programs and as a realignment of the political parties towards a new Republican center began to occur, Johnson realized that the battle he was fighting could not be won. As candidates for both parties vied for position in the 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon was able to assemble a group of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats that were willing to work together to provide an long last an alternative to the traditional American value of liberal individualism. While the ultimate attempt to provide every American with a guaranteed annual income was not to occur within the context of this work, Davies does show how this unlikely coalition was able to defeat an American value that was deeply entrenched in its history.

Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

In From Opportunity To Entitlement, Gareth Davies explores the transformation of welfare policy during the 1960s from liberal New Deal ideology of opportunity to the Great Society concept of entitlement. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty “was a war born of optimism” which “promised a hand up, not a handout” (39). By the end of the decade the change in welfare policy from one of providing opportunity to a policy of providing guaranteed income had not only occurred but had become accepted (211).

In 1964, LBJ was optimistic about his vision of a Great Society and his ability to assist the nation in winning the War on Poverty. At this time the “paradox of poverty was not that deprivation existed…but rather that millions of Americans were deprived of an equal opportunity in a nation historically committed to that ideal” (53). Johnson believed that if you could identify a problem you could also find a solution for that problem and resolved to succeed (38 & 239). Under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (EOA) he created two programs which were reminiscent of New Deal programs: the Job Corps and the Community Action Program (34-35). Like FDR’s New Deal programs, the EOA programs provided an opportunity to learn skills, obtain jobs and earn money rather than receiving a handout. In a 1965 speech, LBJ stated, “education is the only valid passport from poverty”, an endorsement of his liberal Great Society programs (76). However, by the time LBJ left office in 1969 his Great Society programs had evolved from education and opportunity to entitlement without obligation.

Among the factors which contributed to the changes in welfare policy were the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Davies agrees with other scholars who “argue that the struggle for racial equality played a critical role in creating and shaping the liberal reformist spirit of the 1960s” (45). Eventually, these liberals would view Johnson’s War on Poverty “as an arm of the civil rights struggle” (45). Following the Watts riot in 1965, “leading figures within the Johnson administration…developed and promoted antipoverty initiatives that implied a significant departure from the modest service strategy of 1964” (103). Among the reasons for this initiative was the idea that poverty among the African American population was unique (62). In addition, the escalation of the war in Vietnam caused funds intended for Great Society programs to be redirected to the war effort (241).

Starting with Johnson’s Great Society, welfare policy transformed from one of providing opportunity for a better life, to entitlement without responsibility and finally full circle by 1980 with a return to providing the poor with the opportunity to learn, earn and become independent.


Mary S. Linhart

Davies discusses changes in the 1960’s primarily through an examination of Presidential, Congressional and bureaucratic views, actions and reactions. Since his purpose is to show changing aspects of liberalism, his primary focus is on liberal Democrats. Throughout Davies’s discussion, Johnson is a dominant protagonist. Davies demonstrates the strengthening of the executive branch and bureaucracy described by Mary Shelia McMahon (The Sixties From Memory to History). Like Joseph Califano (The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson The White House Years), Davies observes Johnson’s pragmatism and skill in building consensus and political skills. As a rule, Johnson ‘saw no virtue in sacrificing political strength for a cause that, however laudable, could not currently be advanced.’ (185) Like Califano, Davies sees Johnson as a sincere advocate of racial justice since he was able to take an ‘unpopular stance’, ’most notably his support for open housing.’ (185)

Davies has almost nothing to say about the white youth and counter-cultures. He discusses the attitudes of white ethnic groups toward welfare programs. He quotes Mitchell Ginsberg, a former commissioner for welfare in New York City, who reported ‘the heart of the opposition to welfare’ were those working people ‘just above it.’ (237) These working people, often urban ethnics, resented the fact that welfare represented tax money they had earned that was given to those who did not work. Although urban working people were traditionally Democratic, many would vote against the Democratic Party in 1968. Davies confirms views about white ethnic groups described by David R. Colburn and George E. Pozzetta. (The Sixties From Memory to History)

American poverty in the 1960’s was complicated by racial issues and the activism of civil rights leaders. Politicians found it necessary to present their programs as beneficial to all the poor, not just African-Americans, although African-Americans were a large part of the population that did not find employment, often because of discrimination or poor education. Black leaders of all kinds forcefully pushed for poverty programs. The activism of leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown and the race riots discouraged white support for programs that both blacks and whites believed were failing. Race riots seemed to demonstrate that the liberal foundation of the War on Poverty was wrong.

Davies says little about non-liberals. His focus is on differences within the liberal community, invariably Democrats. It is probable Johnson’s resounding victory over the arch-conservative, Barry Goldwater, misled liberals about the depth of long term support for their policies and misled Johnson about the willingness of average Americans to support a costly liberal agenda. In-fighting and philosophy changes certainly contributed to the problems of liberalism. The distinction between opportunity and entitlement was representative of the uncertainty and differences of liberal leaders, but that distinction was hardly the dominant issue in the minds of most voters. --Mlinhart 12:36, 7 Mar 2006 (EST)

Tom Demharter, fall 2005

--Tdemharter 23:50, 24 Oct 2005 (EDT)

Overall, the book was interesting in that it provided a fresh perspective of the Johnson Administration and the problems that it faced after the 1966 midterm elections. While the book provided a tremendous amount of new information to be pondered, it also left many questions unanswered. For example, while Davies does discuss the Vietnam War and it effect on Johnson’s ability to have his agenda passed, this topic is provided little depth. How was America responding to the vast sums being spent on the war? Could this money have been spent in differently? What other options were available? Overall, while this book truly provided a great perspective on many of the problems that Johnson faced, its success was in the fact that it looked at these problems from unique perspectives that had yet to be examined.

Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

Gareth Davies provides a wealth of information regarding welfare policies during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. He analyzes the changes which occurred in those policies and the reasons for those changes. The two most prominent reasons for changes in welfare policy during the 1960s were the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Davies explores those changes in regard to prevalent liberal ideologies and their effect on welfare reform.

Johnson dreamed of a Great Society in America in which poverty no longer existed. In the spring of 1967, he acknowledged the real possibility that he would never live to see the realization of his dream (172). Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty were the result of the New Deal liberalism in which he believed. Under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Johnson created two programs: the Job Corps and the Community Action Program. The idea behind these programs was similar to FDR’s New Deal “Alphabet Soup” programs.

Davies discusses the Watts riot which occurred in a poor black suburb of Los Angeles in 1965, not from the perspective of the riot itself but rather how Johnson responded to the event. While his public response to the riot was one of sensitivity and courage in requesting a national response of patience and cooperation, his personal and private response was more revealing (78-79). Initially he refused to read the cable, would not accept calls from his generals or respond by making decisions and providing the guidance his staff required. He was simply in denial and seemed to have withdrawn into his own thoughts (78).

The escalation of the war in Vietnam requiring additional funds which were diverted from Great Society programs, antiwar protests and civil rights protests combined to bring about changes in welfare policy. During the 1960s, welfare policy which initially provided the recipient with an opportunity to learn, earn and become independent ultimately changed to a system which provided the recipient with a guaranteed income without obligation or responsibility.

Davies begins the book with the “workfare” policy of President Ronald Reagan and includes New Deal policies and the civil rights movement in his discussion. This serves to tie this book not only to the topic of the Great Society, but also to the New Deal, civil rights and the Age of Reagan. --Blclark 12:35, 21 October 2008 (UTC)

Personal tools