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This past week the administration unveiled its proposed budget, which featured significant cuts to domestic agencies and programs and significant increases to defense spending. There’s been lots of talk about cuts to the NEA/NEH and to Meals on Wheels through the Community Block Development Grant cuts, and much of the response in defense of those programs has been to point out that they are such an incredibly small part of the budget.

Taking a longer view, though, this isn’t a fight about how much we want to spend, but rather what we believe we should spend it on, as the OMB director made clear:

“When you start looking at the places that will reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was ‘Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?’ And the answer was no,” Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a Thursday morning interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

“We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting.”

It is worth noting that many of the cuts are directed at the programs and ideas of Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964-5 “Great Society” domestic agenda, which argued that the federal government should play an increased role in protecting the environment and labor standards, fostering the arts and culture, ensuring education for all children, lifting people out of poverty, and ending racial injustice. For instance, the grants affecting Meals on Wheels are administered by HUD, itself a creation of the Great Society moment.

Still, the Great Society emerged in a particular place and time, and this week we’re going to take a look at its programs and ideas in historical context. The scope of the Great Society is quite broad, though, so if there are particular programs or ideas you want to know more about, let us know in the comments.


Erin Bartram studies 19th century U.S. history, with a focus on religion and gender. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her writing at her website.