The hubris of the Great Society

In The Great Society, Amity Shlaes tells how the Johnson administration attacks societal issues on all levels. The US government had the power and financial backing to go big and throw policy solutions at social problems on a grand scale. They wanted so badly to plan from above that they didn’t look for solutions from below.

The chapter on housing is particularly telling. Massive complexes were vigorously built to house the poor. Is it not ironic that the tower structure at Pruitt-Igoe was chosen under pecuniary pressures (pg 240)? Yet no parks were allowed. No fathers were allowed (pg 241). When solving a social sphere problem, the men in charge used business school analysis.

They went big and failed big not only in the provision of housing but also in the decision to demolish existing housing. In cities across the US, and certainly here in Minneapolis, large tracts of single-family home neighborhoods were bulldozed. Locally this happened for the installation of I35 and I94. Along I94, which connects Minneapolis and St Paul, an African American neighborhood called Rondo was greatly diminished.

Here again, I have no doubt the logic was based on finances. Dilapidated homes are plagued by expenses from defrayed mechanical maintenance. Since home resale values in these areas were undoubtedly low, the dollars and cents reasoning said to tear them down.

What The Great Society tore down, however, were networks of relationships between people who were already isolated from the greater group. They were the relationships that provided care for the old and the young. They were the connections between the workers who get extended family a job; or the mom who takes in a niece. Only later will Jane Jacobs becomes famous for documenting the interpersonal work exercised between neighbors.

It seems the people in charge in the 60’s simply thought that with enough cash and good intentions, they could conquer any social ill (as some people still think today). Schlae provides so many examples of grand schemes which fell flat. Missing is a system that balances needs and resources while being sensitive to incentives.