Mr. Newburgh's Neighborhood

A Review of From Opportunity to Embitterment: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism
by Gareth Davies

Author Biography

Born in London, England, Gareth Davies has now published his first work. His first masterpiece, From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism, was an accumulation of his knowledge in American and Modern history. Graduating from St. Anne’s College and then Oxford University, Davies has become a lecturer on American History in the University of Lancaster.

In the year 1961, a plethora of blacks from the south were to be moved to the city of Newburgh in upstate New York. City Manager Joseph Mitchell would not allow such a thing to happen to his fair city for the fact that they were all poor, meaning that welfare would have to be given out to every single one of those southerners. With so many expected to be on welfare, an economic tumble was predicted. Before too much damage had occurred, the racist Mitchell declared that all the unemployed would have to work in order to be paid and receive benefits and be paid; welfare was now a thing of the past in Newburgh. His believed that “it is not moral to appropriate public funds to finance crime, illegitimacy, disease, and other social evils.”1 It showed how racism was still an important factor, and a prelude to how important this social issue would become in the sixties. Although ruled illegal, national publicity had sided with Mitchell because welfare had truly become a problem, albeit it was racism that convinced Mitchell on clamping down on welfare—both the people and government could agree on that. However, traditions of individualism must be broken for a radical idea of income entitlement to be fulfilled—thus the title for the fact that Newburgh had tossed the snowball down the slope to first create momentum for rethinking welfare in general: was welfare a bigger problem for the city economically, a burden for the people, or actually beneficial despite the issues?

In the first few chapters, the human condition was elaborated upon through a political point of view. Too many people had become dependent economically because of welfare due to the New Deal, and it was finally sought out to be changed Lyndon B. Johnson. However, before getting into what LBJ actually accomplished on the said standpoint, a background on the New Deal, the history of dependency, and recent historical events leading up to LBJ’s decision considering welfare as either a demon or as an angel came first to elaborate the idea of changing the country through politics. Distributing new opportunities to almost all Americans, the New Deal was a liberal idea that would set a precedent that America not only could be changed for he better, but that it should be worked on harder than anything else to achieve. Dependency was an issue ever since the Gilded Age, man did not want to become dependent no matter what, yet there were times where there was no choice. In the sense of proving how long the people and eventually the politicians had considered dependency a problem, a brief background on recent events further enhanced the reasons on why welfare was the enemy. After Newburgh, welfare had been seen in an entirely new light. Could it be that LBJ would help America by taking away its free food, giving lessons on how to make a spear, and letting the populace roam the country to hunt for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Lyndon Johnson wanted to teach the people how to hunt rather than just plainly giving the food out—it would benefit everyone in America, an not just that generation, but if anything, help more and more down the road with every upcoming generation.

Opportunity had become the entire issue LBJ was adamant on being primary in America in the first two chapters. In Chapters four through five, the War on Poverty, the term used by Johnson to summarize his entire liberal campaign as an actual war against welfare’s ironic consequence—poverty and dependency, had become a winning war. Lyndon Johnson had considered that opportunity was everything in the world, and that without it, no American could become independent and successful. As LBJ went on the road showing off his enlightened perspective, more and more people started to consider that opportunity truly was the ultimate answer. With opportunity, a man could get any job he wanted—the American dream had finally reached home for many Americans. However, the only problem was that opportunity could not reach everyone, and as few as the minority was, these people who could not, would not gain the advantages an opportunistic America. Chapter six is an important chapter the justification that the War on Poverty was a war that could not be won. Regardless, LBJ did not understand such a thing until the end of his travels promoting a liberal hope for America’s future and Americans’ futures. Other than the War on Poverty, there was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War proved to be a power to reckon with after it consumed all the funds Lyndon Johnson had planned for his efforts and not on the anti-communist super power he tried to change from within for the better of its people. With so many citizens and politicians worried about the impact war had had, regardless of a victor or not, no one had the energy to consider making a torn America happy. The ideals of opportunity had a key feature that would not be sought from this point on—equality on the battlefield for opportunity in the War on Poverty through a sort of unification. Blacks were a key part in making Lyndon Johnson hesitate on his own battlefield for opportunity. Because of social inequality, Lyndon Johnson had to create equality in order for people to be equals in fighting for opportunity. After working with civil right leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Whitney Young Jr., Lyndon Johnson finally understood that his war would not, could not, and should not compete any longer against social, political, and economical issues. From chapters seven through eleven, the downfall of the War on Poverty had become reality and truth. Lyndon Johnson had tried and tried, through civil rights and politics to get his idea of opportunity across. The idea surely came across, yet it lost the people’s support. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans were not in need for an opportunistic America; times had changed.

Contrary to popular belief, there was no individualism in America as people had figured. It was in “the Gilded Age that the individualist credo reached its zenith.”2 With Samuel Gompers leading this controversy in the People’s Party at that time, people were finally considering individualism. The Gilded Age was an era full of workers and ironically economic dependency. Independence had become more and more visible, understood, and considered. For America, independence had to change tradition-wise. Also, the Gilded Age shows how early individualism was fought for the average person. All the People’s Party did for the effort was start off the fight, but the New Deal really added momentum. The New Deal would come into play to help society and humanity, but would it be enough? President Roosevelt even noted in his State of the Union Address in January of 1935 that independence was a larger importance than any popular politician had considered key and that “to dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”3 Roosevelt had said that the road to independence must be taken; for if not, terrible consequences would befall to the citizen. The Progressive Era’s New Deal had helped the nation out tremendously, socially, and economically when the country really needed it. However, the one thing that stood out from the New Deal to really help out the end of the average American’s dependency was the Social Security Act of 1935. It would prove to push people in the right direction away from economical dependency. Dependency was a double-bladed sword that was unable to be weald anymore. It was then assumed that if prosperity returned, popular individualism would follow. By the 1950s, social security had finally done enough to almost guarantee it would remain in political programs in the future. In 1957, for example, Aid to Dependent Children replaced Old Age Assistance, regardless of further expenses. This showed just how the public now viewed dependency within the adult community—much more uncommon, for one. Dependency was often found and destroyed; any trace of it would be wiped out for out of sight was out of mind.

Gareth Davies wrote From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism for the sole purpose of demonstrating that dependency is the worst things in humanity today. Dependency leads to the problems of poverty and starvation. Dependency was the issue Davies explained was key in Johnson’s thinking on how to change America—dependency must be eliminated. With the termination of dependency, America could function peacefully and successfully. However, the only way dependency could go away would be through the idea of opportunity. Davies mentions that opportunity was everything in the world Lyndon Johnson envisioned for his country. Opportunity allowed the average man, no matter where he was coming from or where he was going, to just keep moving. An opened door defined opportunity, and with that door open, dependency would be lost forever. Gareth Davies mentioned over and over again that with a combination of opportunity and independence, a duality that helped each other infinitely, poverty, and hunger would never be seen again on the streets of Suburbia, USA. Humanity’s worst conditions, poverty, hunger, and dependency should be abolished. Johnson understood that, and Gareth knew where Johnson was coming from—if one man could become rich, then why not the rest? At that time, the rest could not, and it was rare to find a rich man to make an example out of. Things would need to be changed, and through the War on Poverty, things would be. Written in the mid-nineties, From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism was written for a reason. Historiography played a role in the birth of such a book on American liberalism, its crusade to make America better, and its failure. During a Russian Renaissance regarding British literature and history, many new novels about liberalism and history had been written in both Russia and Britain observing each other’s history as well as others, like American history for example. A term that could sum this entire attitude on writing trends about foreign studies is ksenology. Ksenology is the study of foreign attitudes towards local events and of local attitudes towards foreign events. During that era, both countries looked for help on how to make their country better—a concentration of knowledge about other countries and their politics brought inspiration to politicians, historians, and writers. As new laws were agreed upon and new history textbooks published, a writer by the names of Davies wrote his own book as part of the writing movement on politics’ history. This could all explain the sudden interest in the growth of liberalism in politics and literature.

From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism was a journey in itself. Gareth Davies discussed how the Great Society’s War on Poverty had helped the nation. The movement had failed, yet it had influenced ideas on how America should run and help out its citizens in the rat race called life. Success was an issue often demonstrated in the book; however, it was not demonstrated successfully. Many chapters had interesting topics, yet they were elaborated upon in a confusing manner. Not enough examples justified opinions and supposed facts in the book. Regardless of confusing chapters, the ideas found within the chapters were jaw-dropping interesting. Lyndon Johnson had been defined as a hero by what he had tried to accomplish and sadly failed. It gives a reader a propagandized view on how hard and well the government tried to make America a better place to thrive in. From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism gave a reader insight on what really happened in the political agenda of Johnson, and how America reacted. These facts were portrayed excellently because of how much was said on behalf of the author’s thesis—the world can be a better place and Johnson knew it. In-depth analysis on America’s point of views on war, social, and economic issues, be it liberal or otherwise, can help the reader understand the possible steps his or her government must take and/or is taking in their present life. What is the government considering during the War on Terrorism, during the immigration issue, or during the problems of peace in the Middle East? The book is helpful in putting the past, present, and future into perspective when debating political agendas.

In Gareth Davies’s analysis, the War on Poverty played a large role in political, economic, and cultural American history. Politically, Johnson proposed a liberal agenda that would aid in the abolishment of dependency, a burden that plagued all humanity. If it were gone, then everyone in and out of America, would benefit. Economically, welfare was put on trial. If welfare was gone, then the given opportunity would be used to its fullest potential, bringing out the fullest potential of every American citizen. If one had to work to survive, then there would be no dependency ever again. Socially, Lyndon Johnson proposed radical ideas—racial equality. For opportunity to be true, it had to give equal opportunity to everyone regardless of race or gender. Johnson got as serious as to work with civil right activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. to help make America a better place. From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society, liberalism proves that Lyndon Johnson puts effort into making a better America.

review by Elad Shem-Tov

  1. Davies, Gareth. From Opportunity to Entitlement the Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism, Kansas: University of Kansas 1996, 28.
  2. Davies, Gareth 12.
  3. Davies, Gareth 15.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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