The Great Society’s greatest achievement isn’t so great

The Washington Post is running a series called “The Great Society at 50.” At times, the project seems like an effort on behalf of progressivism to revive the reputation of a shockingly bad liberal president, just as the buzz around Thomas Piketty’s new book seems like an effort to revive shockingly bad economic doctrine.

It happens that my father had a ringside seat for the launch of the Great Society and eventually got into the ring. As a politically curious teenager, I had a spot somewhere in the cheap seats.

In the summer of 1964, our family vacation plans were altered. President Johnson had decided to wage a War on Poverty, and my father, a career Labor Department employee, was drafted.

The Labor Department was given only a peripheral role in the War. The lead role fell to a new agency called the Office Economic Opportunity (OEO) under the direction of Sargent Shriver, the Kennedys’ brother-in-law who had run the Peace Corps.

Most Labor Department officials were not amused, but my father considered this a good development. As a veteran bureaucrat and master infighter, he recognized that most of the OEO programs were so half-baked — for example, “community action” programs that bypassed local elected officials — that they would fail spectacularly and OEO would take the fall.

The Labor Department could then pick up the few viable pieces. The piece that most interested my father was the Job Corps.

The scenario played out almost exactly as my father expected. In fact, after the Job Corps was transferred to the Labor Department, the Nixon administration made him its director.

There was a serious catch, though. My father’s mandate was to eliminate the Job Corps. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s top domestic adviser with a reputation as an enforcer, would ride herd to make sure it happened.

My father had other ideas. His plan was to cut some Job Corps centers and improve the functioning of the rest (the program had been plagued by problems since its inception, but my father attributed them in part to incompetent, idealistic OEO managers — “boy scouts” as he called them). He would thereby win over George Shultz (then Secretary of Labor) and his team, as well as congressmen from both parties who had centers in their district.

The plan worked. Centers were cut, but the Job Corps survived.

Forty-five years on, as part of its “Great Society” series, the Post has produced a lengthy article devoted exclusively to the Job Corps, which it says lies “at [the] core of LBJ’s legacy. Written by David Fahrenthold, the article looks like an objective analysis.

There is no doubt that the Job Corps has positively affected the lives of many people from the lowest rungs of society. The question, of course, is whether, taking into account the many failures, the Job Corps successes justify the cost ($1.7 billion this year). Fahrenthold cites a comprehensive study that suggests the answer may well be “no.”

My father would almost certainly dissent. But he would probably acknowledge the inherent shortcomings of government-provided job training.

He used to tell the story of a Job Corps center in Indiana (I think) that trained welders. The welders, virtually all of whom were Black, would then seek employment at a shipyard in Alabama. Invariably, they would be rejected.

Inside the Department of Labor, the party line was that the man in charge in Alabama was a racist. But my father dug deeper. He called the guy, who said he was willing to take Job Corps alumni, but insisted they just weren’t good enough at welding.

My father invited the Alabaman to spend a few days at the Indiana center. He agreed.

At the end of his visit, he told my father, “Bill, not only are your welders not good enough to work for me, your teachers aren’t good enough to work for me.”

They say that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. It may also be the case that those who can’t teach end up teaching in government-run training programs.

For me, in any event, the lesson of the “Great Society” is that the left’s War on Poverty was destined to fail and that a revived War along similar lines will fail similarly.

Responses