• U.S.

The People: The Dimming of the Dream

8 minute read

It was vast in scope and visionary in concept—the way Americans like their dreams. It held the glittering promise of a qualitative improvement in every aspect of U.S. life, from urban transportation to highway beautification. It was to be the chef d’oeuvre of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and the monument that would guarantee his place in history.

But the dream, somehow, has dimmed. Thirty-one months after the President proclaimed the coming of the Great Society in his memorable Ann Arbor, Mich, speech, its impact has been disappointingly slight. In the Depression-blighted days of the New Deal, the impact of federal programs was direct and immediate. Vice President Hubert Humphrey recalls how the entire population of Doland, S. Dak., turned out to watch a federal tree-planting project aimed at stopping dust storms. “I remember—we all remember—what a great day it was for us,” says Humphrey. “We knew that at last somebody cared.” The trees soon died, but not the memory. Today it would take a rare federal program to rouse that kind of enthusiasm.

Too Much to Digest. To be sure, Congress obligingly poured out a freshet, then a flood, of programs in response to Johnson’s Great Society speech. There were 21 different health programs (including the historic Medicare act), 17 for education, 15 for economic development, a dozen dealing with urban crises, four for manpower training, 17 for preserving national resources. Two new Cabinet posts were created to tackle the burgeoning problems of transportation and urban development. The poverty program, an earlier creation, was woven into the Great Society fabric.

It was an overwhelming performance—and that was part of the trouble. “We have tried to do a great deal in a short time,” said Budget Director Charles Schultze, “and the federal system has been hard put to digest so much so quickly.”

The new programs have brought with them a baffling welter of funds, agencies, bureaus, offices, departments and regional representatives within the Administration. At the moment some $15 billion in federal aid is available to state and municipal governments, but it is practically a life’s work figuring out where to go for what. The money is distributed among 170 separate programs, funded by 400 different appropriations, administered by 21 departments and agencies, assisted by 150 bureaus. Such is the confusion that when then Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach was asked during a recent Senate hearing how much federal aid was available to cities, he said $13 billion; the next day Housing and Urban Development Secretary Robert Weaver gave the figure as $28 billion. State and municipal officials find themselves all but buried under paperwork; the city of Oakland, Calif, alone runs 140 federal-grant programs, must keep separate account books for each.

Cool It. Part of the trouble lies with the President, who has never been known for his administrative skills. “Maybe Lyndon Johnson had te do what John Kennedy could not do—pass the bills,” one of the President’s top White House aides mused. “And maybe someone else will have to do what Lyndon Johnson cannot do—make it all work.”

Someone will have to, or the Great Society dream may soon go aglimmering. “In almost every domestic program, we are encountering crises of organization,” Health, Education and Welfare Secretary John W. Gardner told the Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations last month. “Coordination among federal agencies leaves much to be desired. Communication among the various levels of government—federal, state and local—is casual and ineffective.”

The crises are evident in the paucity of results. In Watts, the high-tension Negro section of Los Angeles that erupted in fierce rioting a year and a half ago, measurable progress is almost impossible to discern. Local officials have done almost nothing, and the federal program has bogged down in red tape. Although there are job-training classes in Watts, the dropout rate is almost 50%. Small wonder. The curriculum, which includes such subjects as termite control and motorcycle repair, scarcely seems tailored to the Watts job market. Last summer, when it was feared that Watts would erupt again, federal officials earmarked $262,000 for “Operation Cool-It,” aimed at shifting 50,000 restless youngsters from the sweltering streets to beaches or pools. Unfortunately, Operation Cool-It had to cool it until September, when funds were finally released—and when the kids were back in school anyway.

Piecemeal Projects. Discouraging flaws crop up everywhere. Last week the President’s National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children complained that a $250 million summer-school program for 2,500,000 deprived children was accomplishing nothing. “Projects are piecemeal and fragmented,” said the council. “It is extremely rare to find strategically planned, comprehensive programs for change based on needs.” Teachers were uninterested. Administrators were of questionable quality—one said blithely, “It’s no use trying to do anything for these jigs.” Money was wasted on unused equipment.

Five months after Medicare went into effect, the program is causing chaos in many U.S. hospitals. Because Medicare funds are not flowing fast enough, the hospitals face a choice of going into debt or raising their fees. The trouble, conceded Hubert Humphrey last week, is all too familiar: a serious bureaucratic bottleneck in Washington.

Branch Offices. Washington simply has too much to do. When local school officials recently beseeched him for guidance on bussing policies, Education Commissioner Harold Howe flatly—and wisely—refused to oblige them. The Federal Government, he told them, had enough to do without trying to set policies for thousands of school districts, all with purely local problems and prejudices.

Howe, of course, was right. But the tendency, even among local officials who would be the first to defend states’ rights, is to follow the formula: Washington proposes, and Washington disposes. Clearly, the cure lies in a redistribution of powers—with more responsibilities assigned to state and local governments and to private enterprise as well. President Johnson likes to apply the phrase “creative federalism” to this partnership—meaning that Washington will furnish the muscle and the money for the nation’s vast social progress while local officials expend their energy and ingenuity on making the programs work. So far, the Administration’s most imaginative plan based totally on the concept of creative federalism is the $1 billion-plus Demonstration Cities program. It calls for the award of funds to municipalities that produce the most compelling plans for solving their own urban crises.

One stumbling block is the general disrepair of many state and local governments. Unless they shape up—and soon—warned John Gardner, they will turn into “mere branch offices of one all-dominating national government.” Maine’s Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie, who, as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations, has probed deeply into the problem, agrees. “We want to save local autonomy from what could be its own destruction,” he told Indiana’s legislature last week. “If state and local governments do not take effective steps to meet the urban crisis, for example, someone will have to do the job. And that someone is likely to be the Federal Government.”

Rivals or Partners. It is the urban crisis mentioned by Muskie that is the real testing ground for the Great Society, for 70% of all Americans are city dwellers. To the nation’s mayors, the answer is more cash. Complaining about cutbacks in a number of urban programs ordered by the President last week for the purpose of shrinking the budget deficit, New York’s John Lindsay cried: “Something is wrong with our national priorities when we reduce our commitment to our cities by well over a billion dollars at the same time we leave our space program virtually intact.”

To New York Banker David Rockefeller, however, the answer lies not in bigger portions of federal aid but in the creation of an effective partnership between Government and business—with business carrying the major load. “Urban rehabilitation is primarily a task for private enterprise,” he told the Senate Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization last week. “Government can lend support and provide incentive—and it is important that these things be done. But, fundamentally, this is a job of massive financial and human investment that can best be accomplished by the private sector.” Added Rockefeller caustically: “Many of my businessmen friends tell me that many Government officials tend to look upon them as rivals in competition rather than partners in progress.”

Damned Little Milk. When the 90th Congress convenes next month, nothing will occupy more of its attention than the future shape and direction of the Great Society. There will be demands for expanding it; as Poverty War Commander Sargent Shriver puts it, “We were just about to put the bottle in the baby’s mouth, and we find there’s damned little milk to give.” There will be equally strident demands for contracting it; with the Viet Nam war siphoning off billions of dollars, a big budgetary deficit is in prospect unless spending is cut somewhere.

Nobody is likely to suggest that the Great Society be abandoned. The focus of the debate, rather, will be on how to spend the money more effectively. Only when that problem is resolved will the Great Society begin to take the shape that Lyndon Johnson foresaw for it 31 months ago.

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