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The New Deal and Great Society: An Evaluation of the Purpose and Effectiveness of Two Comprehensive Presidential Initiatives Essay

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Updated: Sep 14th, 2021

Introduction

With the American economy in the depths of depression and with many of the nation’s citizens questioning the viability of the American democratic experiment, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his presidential nomination acceptance speech at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, announced, “I pledge to you, I pledge to myself, to a new deal for the American people.” Over three decades later, with America enjoying unexampled economic growth and prosperity, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his State of the Union address to Congress (January 4, 1965), stated, “We worked for two centuries to climb this peak of prosperity. But we are only at the beginning of the road to the Great Society. Ahead now is a summit where freedom from the wants of the body can help fulfill the needs of the spirit.”

To achieve their respective goals, each of these chief executives fostered legislation that variously addressed immediate issues and long-term objectives. This report considers legislative initiatives undertaken under the respective banners of the New Deal and the Great Society and considers their impacts in both the immediate and the longer term.

Thesis Statement

The immediate—and, in the case of the Roosevelt Administration, almost stopgap—measures were as much effort at confidence building as they were programs intended to eliminate unwanted prevailing conditions. Those initiatives intended to address more persistent or, arguably, embedded, social ills had their origins in each president’s perception of the national purpose. Furthermore, initiatives undertaken during the Roosevelt Administration faced a daunting challenge in the Supreme Court. Conversely, those associated with the Great Society did not face any comparable challenge.

The Roosevelt Administration

Many of the New Deal initiatives had a measure of immediacy, i.e., they were intended as immediate crisis responses, not all that dissimilar from the programmatic responses of earlier administration (albeit functioning on the national level). Such government programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) fall into this category. They were intended to provide temporary government jobs to men displaced by the Depression, while at the same time accomplishing public projects that advanced the public weal. Other administration initiatives were of a more permanent nature.

These include the 1935 Wagner Labor Relations Act, which established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to adjudicate fair labor practices. This effectively removed the determination of equity in labor relations from the courts to a federal agency, a situation that largely obtains to the present day.

The 1933 National Recovery Act (or NRA), eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, sought to emplace in a single bureaucracy the authority to distribute economic status between otherwise competing sectors (e.g., labor, management) and corporations (in effect, establishing government-supervised cartels) by fiat.

Certain programs, ostensibly directed toward immediate objectives, effectively placed the government in competition with private industry. The prime example was the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA. The TVA, in many respects no more than a public works project in its earliest phase, was responsible for the construction of a series of dams that would provide electrical power to a large section of the nation which, at the time, was deficient in access to privately supplied electricity. Once this laudable goal was achieved, however, TVA remained in existence as a government-owned utility, providing low-cost, government-subsidized electricity to its customers.

In effect, TVA became a conduit for wealth transfer. Whatever the merits of such a program, they were certainly not enumerated in the enabling legislation, although they may well have been unspoken objectives of New Deal planners.

In light of the foregoing, it may reasonably be concluded that the ‘brick and mortar’ programs (e.g., TVA) took on a life that extended far beyond the reach of the New Deal itself. Conversely, those efforts that implicated the underlying structure of economic life (most notably, NRA) could not survive a court challenge. However, when such efforts assumed the guise of a court (as did—and still does—the NLRB) in actual proceedings—which is to say that essentially executive decisions are subject to traditional appellate review—they maintain the patina of tradition and legitimacy.

The Johnson Administration

It is safe to say that initiatives undertaken during the Johnson Administration were not subject to the same unfavorable judicial scrutiny that plagued those undertaken during the Roosevelt period. Perhaps more to the point, however, one outcome of the New Deal was the development of a national consensus that government intervention and initiative were reasonable, rather than shocking. (Indeed, it was during the Republican Eisenhower Administration that the Federal highway construction effort—one of the greatest and most expensive domestic projects ever undertaken by any nation—was made.)

On a more philosophical level, while the Roosevelt Administration sought to turn the powers of the Federal government to the modification of the nation’s economic structure, the Johnson Administration sought to apply those same powers to eliminate residual social shortcomings, attitudes, and practices at odds with the ideals expressed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The most important of these, of course, was the treatment of African Americans as second-class citizens, at least in some parts of the United States.

During the Roosevelt Administration, a number of ‘make work’ programs (e.g., WPA, CCC) were established to provide minimal earnings to men unable to find regular employment. (It should be understood that, under favorable economic circumstances, these same men would have been eminently employable.) In contrast, during the Johnson Administration, the government established programs (e.g., Job Corps) designed to meet the needs of young men and women with few or no salable skills. In some respects, of course, this effort was part of a response to the evolved nature of the American economy—it was much more complex and educationally demanding. However, it also reflected an evolution in social thinking: the federal government had a legitimate role, albeit perhaps one of last resort, in preparing the individual for the world of work.

As matters turned out, WPA and CCC were terminated with the entry of the United States into World War II and the beginnings of the relative prosperity associated with a wartime economy. The philosophy underlying such efforts as Job Corps was based on an assumption that it would serve a population desperate to learn skills but unable, for whatever reasons, to do so. This turned out to be a misperception. (It is not the purpose of this report to digress into a discussion of possible shortcomings or deficits of the target population.)

As a practical matter, Job Corps, over the years, transmuted into a vehicle for the application of federal funds to local agencies and businesses to facilitate the employment of otherwise uncompetitive individuals. Likewise, Project Head Start, intended to elevate the long-term mental abilities of children from deprived backgrounds has, over the years, turned (however tacitly) largely into a type of daycare system. Again, it may be argued that these outcomes are meritorious. But they were not what was originally envisaged when first proposed decades ago.

Two Great Society ‘population-targeted’ programs, originally quite controversial, are now generally accepted as reasonable government activities (and, in at least some respects, for the same reasons). They are the Agriculture Department’s food stamp program and Medicare/Medicaid. Both merit some discussion. The food stamp program—actually somewhat of a misnomer—allowed for the beneficiary population (persons with a gross income of less than 120 percent of the federally defined poverty level) to receive dollar-denominated certificates that could be used at food stores—on a ‘dollar-for-dollar’ basis—for the purchase of approved food items.

While the public purpose was to ‘eliminate hunger,’ as a practical matter the real purpose was to improve diet, especially among the very young. (In this respect it may be compared the state- and federally-subsidized to ‘school milk’ and ‘school lunch’ programs of long-standing.) However, while the targeted population was the immediate beneficiary, the larger population benefited as well. Food sellers and producers were always supporters of the program—they made more money through it. But, to the extent that the program was identified as improving the lives of those least able to provide for themselves—children and the aged in straightened circumstances—the food stamp program enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) a reasonable level of support.

Medicare and Medicaid have had a parallel political history. (Medicare is the federally funded health insurance program for recipients of old-age Social Security benefits. Medicaid is the state-operated, albeit federally funded, health insurance program for persons below a certain gross income level.) In the case of Medicare, the immediate beneficiary, of course, is the elderly. However, as the costs of geriatric medical treatment have risen exponentially, family members who might otherwise be required to meet these financial requirements (or, alternatively, see loved ones go without adequate treatment) have become just as strong supporters of the program. As a result, the ‘true’ beneficiary population is considerably greater than the original targeted population, accounting for its ongoing support.

Popular support for Medicaid has followed a comparable trajectory. It is safe to say that the great majority of Americans favor the provision of a reasonable level of health care for indigent children. However, there is also the factor of enlightened self-interest. Healthy children usually grow up to be healthy, self-reliant, productive adults. Sickly children are costly to society and often incur life-long health deficits that are an indirect drag on the general economy.

It should be noted that both the food stamps and the Medicare/Medicaid programs have ideological roots in the New Deal. (President Johnson, himself, as a Washington insider and New Deal congressman, was a strong supporter of federally sponsored support programs in the 1930s.) In light of these considerations, it appears safe to say that those Great Society programs that, directly or indirectly, benefit a large fraction of society will have a long life. And exactly the same has been the case with such New Deal programs as Social Security (and for the same reasons).

The more overarching proposals of the Great Society had a more comprehensive impact on society. The civil rights program (including enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and passage of the 24th Amendment outlawing the poll tax) established the federal government as a ‘first line’ arbiter of fairness, rather than one of ‘last resort.’ Certainly, unimpeded access to the franchise changed the lives of African Americans, if only because elected officials—out of self-interest, if not actual conviction—found it prudent to be more responsive.

However, just as low-cost electricity derived from TVA changed the material lives of those the program served far beyond the bounds originally expected, so enactment of civil rights legislation changed the lives of majority whites in unexpected ways. With the dismantling of the legal framework that had supported a segregated society, local economies were free to develop without significant impediment. Expanded local tax bases allowed for increased social services.

Final Thought

Considering the long-term impact, it appears safe to say that the most important impact of the New Deal was the restoration of confidence in the American experiment and hope for a better future. To what extent the specific programs helped or hindered prosperity has been debated by economists for decades. But the emotional outcome appears beyond question. The impact of the Great Society programs—in the sense of materially changing the lives of Americans in ways that would not otherwise have occurred—is more problematic. At the purely economic level—that of employment for the less talented—the jury is still out. However, efforts at giving substance to constitutional guarantees previously held in abeyance were surely successful.

Works consulted in the preparation of this report

Brown, M., Political culture and antipoverty policies in the New Deal and Great Society, Center for justice, tolerance, and community (University of California/Santa Cruz), Paper CJTC/MKB/2002/01, 2002, 32pp.

Hemmens, G., Implications of a historical debate for a renewal of national planning institutions: Roosevelt and Tugwell in the New Deal, The case for national planning [session meeting], American planning association/2001 National planning conference, 2001.

Murphy, K. C., A lion among liberals: Senator William E. Borah and the rise of New Deal liberalism, Chap. 2: The lion roars: Borah and the early New Deal, Cambridge: Harvard Univ., 2004

Chap. 3: The lion in winter: Borah and the later New Deal, Cambridge: Harvard Univ., 2004.

Parker, R. [ed.], Reflections on the Great Depression, Northampton [MA]: Edward Elgar publishing, 2002.

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