A ‘Great Society’ for America’s cities

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shared his vision of the “Great Society,” an America

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shared his vision of the “Great Society,” an America that is free from poverty and racial injustice, where all its citizens can develop their full potential and share in the abundance, and where the air and water are clean. Presciently, he declared that America’s future would be urban: “Our society will never be great until our cities are great. The frontier of imagination and innovation is inside those cities and not beyond their borders.”

LBJ’s profound confidence that the federal government has a role to play in bettering people’s lives is inspiring. But the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests in our streets, and a litany of climate-fueled disasters remind us how short of his aspirations we still fall. Worse still, the White House has demonized American cities as “anarchist jurisdictions” that are not the “real” America.

Home to eight out of 10 Americans, our cities are America. Their problems are those of our country writ large, and most can be ascribed to the federal government’s abdication of the role that LBJ saw for it as an urban champion. As America looks to the future, President Johnson’s half-century-old dream of a great urban society is more relevant than ever. If we are to build it, it must rest on four pillars:

  1. Equity. The American middle class is vanishing; the top 10 percent of households control 75 percent of the nation’s wealth. Our largest cities are as unequal as the developing world, and there are more poor people in our suburbs than there are in our cities.  

Our racial divisions are just as stark. White families have nearly 10 times the wealth of black and Hispanic ones. Per capita, Black Americans have died from COVID-19 at twice the rate of whites, and they are more than three times as likely to be killed by the police. Going forward, equity, not just efficiency and growth, must become the standard that every public investment is valued against — equity around health, economic opportunity, and policing.

  1. Infrastructure and housing. LBJ lamented “the decay of the [urban] centers and the despoiling of the suburbs,” adding that “there is not enough housing for our people or transportation for our traffic.” Today, our roadways and transit systems are crumbling and antiquated. Twenty million Americans lack access to broadband, a 21st-century utility that is no less vital than electricity. The price tag for America’s infrastructure repairs: more than $2 trillion by 2025.

“We must make sure that every family in America lives in a home of dignity and a neighborhood of pride,” LBJ said. Today, one out of six American households spend more than half their income on shelter, and there is a shortage of at least 7 million affordable housing units. On any given night, more than a half-million Americans are homeless. America’s affordability and infrastructure crises must be a priority of the next Administration.

  1. Education. “Our society will not be great,” LBJ declared, “until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of knowledge.” The disparities in our schools are profound, but it is not just children who need better educational opportunities. Millions of adults have been forced out of work by COVID-19, and tens of millions of jobs are threatened by changing technology. We need to invest massively in workforce development, including wraparound services — child care, apprenticeships, mentoring, and job placement services.
  1. Resilience. LBJ saw pollution as a blot on America the beautiful; with climate change, it has become an existential threat. In this year alone, the U.S. has been hit by 16 weather disasters that each caused more than $1 billion in damage. While cities have led the effort to build more sustainably, the federal government has done the opposite, unilaterally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, rolling back emissions standards, and prioritizing the dying coal industry over more sustainable (and job-creating) renewables.

LBJ was no socialist; his aim wasn’t to crush private initiative, but to empower it. “The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local authority,” he said. “They require us to create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between the national capital and the leaders of local communities.” This is exactly what we need today: the next administration must invest boldly in cities and inspire and unleash the private sector to catalyze local innovation.

The Great Society should not be thought of as a “safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work,” Johnson admonished us. “It is a challenge constantly renewed.” It’s past time that we accepted that challenge and began to build a better future.

Steven Pedigo is the director of the LBJ Urban Lab and a professor of practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter @iamstevenpedigo.

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