At the start of Robert Schenkkan’s play The Great Society, President Lyndon B. Johnson recounts an influential rodeo that involved “the biggest, ugliest, meanest-looking bull I had ever seen in my life.” Moments later, he faces another daunting beast—Congress—as he unveils the most ambitious social policy agenda in a generation.
“The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all,” he announces. “It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice.”
Set amid the civil rights movement and antiwar protests of the 1960s, The Great Society showcases Johnson’s homespun charisma alongside his goal to improve America through antipoverty programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start.
In 1968, Johnson founded the Urban Institute to gauge the effectiveness of the War on Poverty and “help solve the problem that weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of all of us—the problem of the American city and its people.”
At a discussion preceding a showing of The Great Society last week, Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell asked how, if he were alive today, Johnson would charge her organization to fulfill this mission.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, tapped Johnson’s personality in his answer. “He would take the smartest people he could find, lock them in a room, and give them 60 days to come up with the best ideas to eliminate poverty.”
“And he would say, ‘I want to eliminate racism, too,’” Morial added.
But what answers would “smart people” offer after leaving this imaginary room?
Peter Edelman, professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, pointed to challenges in training and upward mobility.
“How do we get young people, particularly those who are behind, to get through postsecondary education and get jobs that pay enough?” he asked. “We are stuck because the economy doesn’t create enough jobs that are upwardly mobile.”
Morial agreed: “What burns me is the pejorative narrative that’s been around since the Great Society began: that poor people don’t want to work.
“We need initiatives that help people climb their way out of poverty and give them the opportunity to work on their own.”
Can we heal society’s divisions?
In The Great Society, violent clashes between Alabama police and demonstrators led by Martin Luther King Jr. evoke images of modern-day incidents involving racism and violence and the persistent problems they illuminate.
Morial pointed to the importance of police-community relationships in overcoming division and building trust, while Edelman praised Urban’s extensive research on the cost of segregation in America’s cities. Both panelists agreed that recent surges in activism related to these issues, like Black Lives Matter and the student-led protests following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, will be key to America’s path forward, but these movements must have patient dedication and concrete policy proposals.
Evidence can guide the way
Today’s polarizing political environment may also pose an obstacle to finding and implementing solutions. In that vein, Morial pointed out the startling productivity of Congress under Johnson. By the end of his second term, Congress had passed 226 of Johnson’s 252 legislative requests, making it one of the most productive Congresses in history.
But Wartell reminded everyone of the power of evidence to shape decisions. “The challenges that we face have some of the same character of the past, but there is a powerful force on both sides of the aisle that are open to hearing about what works,” she said.
“New generations of changemakers are emerging from all corners of society: the local level, the private sector, and philanthropy. The solutions for today’s problems, and tomorrow’s, could come from unexpected places.”
Referencing Morial’s answer to her earlier question, she continued, “I’m privileged to work with some of the smart people who go into that room. But I’m also proud that, these days, those people are leaving that room and going into the communities that we’re talking about.”