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Opinion
Noah Smith

LBJ's Great Society Won the War on Poverty

A much smaller share of the nation’s population lives in the kind of material deprivation common 50 years ago.

That was a win.

That was a win.

Photographer: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1964, speaking at the University of Michigan, President Lyndon Johnson called for the U.S. to become a “great society.” That term came to be synonymous with the Johnson administration's raft of antipoverty programs, sometimes known as the War on Poverty. The Great Society initiative led to the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the modern version of food stamps, Head Start, various jobs programs, expansion of many kinds of Social Security benefits, urban-renewal spending and a vast array of other social programs.

Many now believe this War on Poverty was a failure. Among conservatives, it’s almost an article of faith that LBJ's welfare state fostered a culture of dependence that trapped people in the very poverty it was meant to eliminate. Meanwhile, on the left, many feel a sense of frustration that poverty is still with us, stubbornly stuck at about a seventh of the population: