The Great Society, 57 years later

The Great Society, 57 years later

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered the State of the Union address. It came at a time of national upheaval and turmoil. The Civil Rights Movement was heating up, its activists facing violent backlash from police departments, white supremacists and many elected officials. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans were living in poverty. Millions lacked access to sufficient health care and education. And President Kennedy had been assassinated only six weeks earlier. Johnson – a former master of the Senate and vice president, forced to take charge in the face of incredible tragedy – called on Congress to address the most pressing needs of the American people:

Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined… as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens … and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic.

The speech marked the launch of what came to be known as the Great Society. The reforms of the next few years – the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start and food stamps – would improve the lives and livelihoods of many millions of Americans. But its work remains incomplete. The United States has made important progress in expanding access to health care and education, and in reducing racial barriers. But our national shortcomings have been made starkly clear by the economic collapse caused by Covid-19. 

Americans will soon be led once again by a former vice president who cut his political teeth in the U.S. Senate. Joe Biden’s inauguration comes against a backdrop of deep racial, political and economic division and national turmoil. But the Great Society reminds us that progress is possible; that policy choices at the state and federal level can foster lasting, positive change in people’s lives. At the end of a dark and shameful week in our nation’s history, it’s time once again to aim high. What better time than now to bring a lasting end to inequality and poverty in the United States? To protect the rights of all people and achieve justice for Black Americans? To ensure we all share in the prosperity of our great nation? Let this 117th session of Congress be known for doing so, for all our sakes.

A much needed boost in food budgets for families in need
The Covid-19 relief bill signed into law by President Trump in late December was good news for people who rely on federal assistance to put food on the table each month. Families eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will see a 15% increase in monthly aid. The Times-Picayune | Baton Rouge Advocate’s Calder spoke with LBP’s Director of Safety Net Programs, Danny Mintz, to discuss the importance of this increase:

With about a third of SNAP recipients already at the maximum allotment, this 15% increase is the only additional help they’ve gotten from the program since the pandemic began. ‘This will be the first time the poorest in Louisiana see any increase,’ Mintz said, noting that grocery prices have been climbing during the pandemic.

Many families have been running out of SNAP assistance by the third week of each month, due in part to increasing costs of groceries. The 15% increase will help for the next few months, but Congress must consider further extending these boosted benefits as families and the economy recover from Covid.

Unemployment claims rise as eligibility renewed
Food assistance is not the only safety-net program that received a boost in the Covid-19 relief law. People collecting unemployment benefits will receive an extra $300 per week on top of their state benefits, which will help individuals and families to make ends meet while they seek new jobs or await a safe return to old ones. Understandably, this has led to many Louisianans reapplying for unemployment, as Kristen Mosbrucker with The Times-Picayune | Baton Rouge Advocate writes:

There were 22,869 new unemployment claims filed last week in Louisiana, up from 8,246 one week before, according to U.S. Department of Labor data released Thursday. ‘The uptick in new unemployment claims for benefits for the week ending Jan. 2 can be attributed to the new COVID relief bill,’ said Dede Dunham, spokesperson for the Louisiana Workforce Commission. ‘Many applicants reapplied in hopes to receive the additional $300 benefit. However, there is no need for claimants to reapply unless LWC directs them.’

Worker misclassification costs everyone
Companies in Louisiana that illegally misclassify their employees as independent contractors in order to avoid payroll taxes, unemployment insurance and other costs routinely face a light slap on the wrist – at most. And that’s how the state’s largest business lobby wants things to stay. The Center Square’s David Jacobs reports from a legislative task force, held via Zoom, that is examining the issue: 

Louisiana’s state government should not implement a strict crackdown on businesses that misclassify their employees as independent contractors, business advocates said Thursday. … The issue has drawn attention from lawmakers who said businesses that break the rules gain a competitive advantage over those that don’t. Businesses that misclassify workers also can get out of paying taxes to support unemployment benefits for Louisiana workers, forcing businesses that follow the law to shoulder more of the burden.

Jacobs reports that Louisiana is the only state in the nation where businesses that violate the anti-misclassification law get a warning on their first offense. 

Number of the Day:
57% – Percentage of Black families who were “net worth poor” in 2019, meaning they lacked enough financial resources to sustain their families for three months at a poverty level. Researchers from Duke University researchers also found this was the case for 50% of Latino families, while only 24% of white families faced similar challenges. (Source: Futurity)