Baltimore: The Great Society Implodes

Failed policies have left inner-city children trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Posted Aug 07, 2019

Bruce Emmerling/Pixabay
Source: Bruce Emmerling/Pixabay

Along the streets of a once-great American city, the failures of decades-old social policies have been exposed. I have written before about the perverse economic incentives in the Medicaid program (see my post, “Homeless and Mentally Ill”) that contributed to the problem of homelessness in major cities.

Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income households, was part of the Great Society anti-poverty programs enacted under the Johnson administration in 1965. The program does not cover care provided in institutes for mental diseases. This restriction encouraged the mass exodus of patients with serious mental illness (SMI) from state mental hospitals to community care in the 1960s and ’70s.

Unfortunately, community care never materialized in any meaningful way. Many discharged patients ended up living on the streets, sowing the seeds of the homelessness problem in Baltimore and other major U.S. cities today.

Another Great Society program enacted in 1965 aimed to improve educational outcomes for children from low-income households. Under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government provides financial assistance to school districts serving economically disadvantaged students. In 2017, Title I grants to local educational agencies amounted to more than $14 billion nationwide. Baltimore City Public Schools received almost $62 million in Title I funds that year.

The objective of the Title I program is to reduce gaps in educational achievement associated with race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Measured against this objective after 55 years, the Title I program has been a spectacular failure:

  • From 1986-87 to 2013-14, mean SAT reading and mathematics scores for Black students decreased relative to White students, prompting the College Board to announce that it is adding an adversity index to its SAT scores. This adversity is precisely the problem that the Title I program aimed to address in 1965.
  • In 2017, Fox45 news reported that five Baltimore City high schools and one middle school had not a single student who tested proficient in mathematics or reading. Proficiency represents solid academic performance on a standardized test of the subject-matter knowledge and analytical skills appropriate for the grade assessed.
  • Compared to other developed nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. had the 4th-highest per capita spending on K-12 education in 2012, but ranked 27th out of 34 OECD countries in mathematics achievement, and 17th out of 34 in reading.[1] The rankings surely reflect the disparities in educational outcomes associated with race, ethnicity, and poverty in the U.S.
AkshayaPatra Foundation/Pixabay
Source: AkshayaPatra Foundation/Pixabay

While both the mental health and public education policies of the Great Society have failed to achieve their objectives, there is a fundamental difference in the problems they pose today. That is, we do not know how to resolve the problem of homelessness among the mentally ill in a way that guarantees humane health care, without sacrificing the civil liberties of the patients. That is a tragedy.

We do know how to educate disadvantaged children and reduce disparities in educational outcomes, but we do not have the political will to repeal and replace our failed education policies. That is a travesty.

Research shows that what works in education is parental choice—that is, allowing parents to move their children out of failing schools to schools of their choice, thereby controlling the flow of funds to public schools. For example, a team of researchers at Harvard University, led by economist Caroline Hoxby, conducted an exhaustive review of a school choice program in New York City.[2] The program enabled low-income parents to enter a lottery to send their children to charter schools.

The researchers found that students who attended charter schools for all of grades K-8 closed about 86 percent of the achievement gap in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English. Students who attended charter high schools had Regents exam scores that were about 3 points higher for each year they spent in a charter school before the test. Students were about 7 percent more likely to earn a Regents diploma for each year they spent in a charter high school.

We know that school choice programs can improve educational outcomes for children from disadvantaged homes. The travesty is that states have placed limits on enrollment in many of these programs in response to opposition from the powerful teachers unions. As a result, thousands of children are trapped in failing schools with little hope of escaping poverty. Therein lies an opportunity for some brave politician to come forward squarely in favor of expanded school choice, and perhaps win the African-American vote and the Presidency in 2020.  

In a future post, I will explore why other programs of the Great Society, which were designed to eradicate poverty in the U.S., actually increased the numbers of low-income families dependent on government support and exacerbated the problems of once-great cities like Baltimore.


[1] Retrieved from; August 7, 2019.  

[2] Hoxby, Caroline M., Sonali Murarka, and Jenny Kang. “How New York City's Charter Schools Affect Achievement, August 2009 Report.” Second report in series. Cambridge, MA: New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project, September 2009.