The Great Society Turns 50

Panelists to Hold Friday Discussion at UCSB

It’s been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the Great Society and declared a “war on poverty,” and this Friday, three panelists will talk about economic justice in a public event from 1:00 to 5:30 p.m. at the Student Resource Building (SRB) at UCSB. A slew of history and law professors and urban community activists — including Annelise Orleck, Sophia Lee, Steven Pitts, Clare Pastore, José Padilla, and Pete White — will open a dialogue about poverty and law, workers’ rights, living wages, and more.

“We want to use the occasion of the 50th anniversary to examine the relationship between what happened then and what’s happening today,” said history professor Alice O’Connor, who has taught and researched poverty and wealth, economic inequality, and public policy at UCSB since 1996. (She also directed the UCDC program for two years in Washington, D.C.) “We can’t just sit on our hands and not do anything about it,” O’Connor added.

In the 1960s, Johnson’s programs initiated progressive legislation and put federal dollars into local school districts; established Medicare and Medicaid; eliminated housing discriminating; institutionalized the food-stamp program; abolished the origins quota system in immigration laws; and created vocational jobs in impoverished areas. The era also widened the split between Americans who believe in strengthening the role of the central government and those who would rather limit it.

O’Connor said she is optimistic about Friday’s turnout because crucial issues today were originally part of Johnson’s progressive reform. She said a pertinent issue today is “economic democracy,” which seeks to limit corporate interests in policy-making and increase broader public involvement. “I think students understand that the economy is not going their way. Rather than just saying, ‘Okay, that’s the way the world is,’” O’Connor said, “I’m seeing more students actively looking for ways that they can get involved.”

The event kicks off this year’s Critical Issues in America program that melds current issues and historical legacies. The UCSB History Department and the Center for Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy hosts the events. More information is available at

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