Nixon's new deal: welfare reform for the silent majority.

Author:Spitzer, Scott J.
Position:Report
 
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On August 8, 1969, President Nixon went on national television to promote his domestic policy plans. The centerpiece of his policy package and the focus of his national address was his proposal to replace the main federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), with a new program, billed as the Family Assistance Plan (FAP). Nixon's FAP was based on the Negative Income Tax (NIT) innovation of conservative economist Milton Friedman. It promised a basic minimum income for all families, and would have expanded coverage from AFDC's recipients, primarily nonworking single mothers and their children, to cover the working poor and two-parent families. Moreover, the FAP included an incentive for adult recipients to work by reducing their welfare payment by less than a dollar for every additional dollar earned (Moynihan 1973, chap. 3 and appendix, 229-35; Steensland 2008, chap. 2). According to estimates within the administration, the FAP would have more than doubled the number on "welfare" and tripled its cost, from $2.2 billion on AFDC in 1970 to approximately $5.8 billion if the program had passed) This was particularly surprising from President Nixon, who was expected to narrow welfare's coverage rather than propose a major expansion (Burke and Burke 1974; Moynihan 1973; Steensland 2008).

Why did this Republican president propose what would have amounted to the largest increase in federal welfare spending since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Social Security Act of 1935? Scholars have focused less on the motivations behind the initiation of the FAP than they have on the reasons for its failure (Burke and Burke 1974; Davies 1996, chap. 9; Kornbluh 2007, chap. 7; Moynihan 1973; Quadagno 1990). For accounts that do address the president's choice of the FAP over other alternatives, none feature politics as the focus of their research (Davies 1996, 216-218; O'Connor 1998, 113-14; Steensland 2008, 101, 104-07). This article provides a sustained study of the connection between Nixon's welfare reform and his broader efforts to establish an "emerging Republican majority." (2) By emphasizing the politics of welfare, rather than civil rights, the analysis highlights the emergence of a "northern strategy" for President Nixon. Forged with veiled racial references, meant to appeal to the anxieties of northern white working-and middle-class ethnic voters, this strategy has become increasingly important in contemporary conservative politics (Lassiter 2007; Sugrue and Skreteny 2008). The recent opening of hundreds of thousands of pages of politically sensitive materials at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library (RNPL) offers a fresh opportunity to reexamine Nixon's welfare reform proposal within the context of his political strategy. (3)

I develop my analysis in four subsequent sections. The first section briefly reviews other studies of the FAP and illustrates the benefits of focusing on Nixon's political ambitions. In the second section, I trace the development of Nixon's overarching political strategy. The third section shows how the Nixon administration's FAP should be understood within the context of this broader political strategy. In the fourth section, I assess some of the reasons for the subsequent legislative failure of Nixon's FAP.

Placing the FAP in the Context of Nixon's Political Strategy

Studies of the FAP have addressed electoral politics only tangentially and have focused instead on the policy-making process within the White House, the congressional politics of the FAP, and the cultural context that led to the FAP's defeat. Each of these approaches, however, highlights the value of a more conscious study of the FAP's relationship to Nixon's larger political strategy. Until quite recently, most accounts of the FAP have focused on the internal politics of the White House, rather than the effort to build a national electoral majority. Scholars have traced the origins of the FAP to multiple sources inside and outside the administration (Burke and Burke 1974; Hoff 1994, 115-37; Moynihan 1973; Quadagno 1990; Steensland 2008, esp. chaps. 1-2). In addition, several studies offer detailed reviews of the FAP's failure in Congress (Burke and Burke 1974, chap. 8; Moynihan 1973, chaps. 6-7; Steensland 2008, chaps. 4-5). All of these accounts share an appreciation of the ideological and political pressures facing members of the Nixon White House and members of the Congress. A focus on President Nixon's electoral considerations provides critical context for understanding the origins of the FAP proposal within the Nixon White House, the administration's lobbying effort in Congress, and the rhetorical strategy that Nixon used for his welfare reform.

Several studies also address the FAP's origins in the growing consensus for a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) among economists and social welfare policy experts in the late 1960s (Burke and Burke 1974, chap. 1; Moynihan 1973, chaps. 1-3; Steensland 2008, chap. 2). Each of these accounts illustrates the consideration of broader intellectual currents by liberal policy advisors within the Johnson administration and the influence that these holdovers had in accounting for the origins of the GAI policy proposal within the Nixon White House. Unlike a perspective that focuses on political strategy, however, none of these accounts can explain why President Nixon was persuaded to pursue the more expansive FAP rather than a much smaller and more conservative alternative.

More recently, scholars have examined the influence of cultural politics and grassroots political activism on Nixon's welfare reform proposal (Chappell 2010, chap. 2; Kornbluh 2007, chap. 6; Quadagno 1994, chap. 5; Steensland 2008). In referring to "cultural politics," these studies address broad changes in the nation's race and gender relations as well as implicit moral judgments concerning who was deserving and undeserving of government assistance (Handler and Hasenfeld 1991; Katz 1989; Steensland 2008, chap. 1). All of these studies recognize the importance of racial and gender politics in shaping the defeat of the FAP in Congress. Focusing on Nixon's political strategy emphasizes how FAP's racial politics supported a strategic effort to appeal to white working- and middle-class voters in the north, based on their resentments of black welfare recipients.

Brian Steensland (2008) offers the most comprehensive scholarly study of the FAP yet, based on research with Nixon administration archives available at the time. Since 2007, hundreds of thousands of previously inaccessible materials have been made available for research at the RNPL. These records highlight the political concerns that shaped the policy-making efforts of the Nixon White House and add a new dimension to his analysis. Steensland studied the broader effort to achieve a national GAI in the United States, and argued that the FAP must be understood within the context of cultural distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor (2008, chap. 1; see also Katz 1989; Orloff 1988; Skocpol 1988; Weir 1992). Steensland (2008) shows how the FAP confounded these deeply entrenched cultural categories by proposing to aid both the working and nonworking poor under the same program and how this undermined the policy's political success. Placing political calculation at the center of the analysis provides insight into Nixon's motivations for covering both the working-poor and the non-working poor under the FAP, a critical addition to Steensland's work and an essential part of the explanation for FAP's legislative failure.

Pursuing the "Emerging Republican Majority"

President Nixon pursued his "silent majority" among both southern whites and northern white ethnics, or blue-collar workers (Frymer and Skrenmy 1998; Lassiter 2007; Mason 2004). Nixon's southern strategy--an effort to appeal to white southern Democrats by opposing further liberalization of federal civil rights policy or stronger enforcement of civil rights law--has been well documented (Black and Black 2002, 210-11; Carmines and Stimson 1989, 51-54; Davies 1996, chap. 8; Edsall and Edsall 1991; Frymer and Skrenmy 1998, 141-44; Kotlowski 2001; Lowndes 2008, chap. 5; Phillips 1969). Less well documented, but no less important, were Nixon's political efforts to appeal to northern white Democrats, many of whom resented the Great Society antipoverty and welfare programs, and who were anxious over urban race riots and mass protests against the Vietnam War (Flamm 2005; Frymer and Skrenmy 1998; Lassiter 2007; Mason 2004; Sugrue and Skrenmy 2008). While these efforts were in many ways complementary, appeals for these new conservative coalition constituencies were different in their focus. Welfare reform addressed a number of political objectives for the Nixon administration, including an effort to redistribute federal aid to southern states. Over time, however, the predominant political focus of the FAP became the effort to appeal to blue-collar, northern white-ethnic voters.

Originally, Nixon sought a moderate domestic policy strategy that would redirect the benefits of liberal social welfare policies toward conservative voting blocs (Davies 1996, chap. 9). As president, Nixon sought to both consolidate and challenge the New Deal order, reforming the liberal programs of the New Deal state to appeal to conservative constituencies (Milkis 1993, 223-28). His centrist approach to domestic policy, moreover, was rooted in the moderate Republican principles advanced under President Dwight Eisenhower and articulated by his speechwriter and political advisor Arthur Larson (Stebenne 2006). As Eisenhower's vice president, while Nixon's rough-edged anti-Communist politics had engendered resentment and suspicion from Democrats, he had always been a centrist in domestic policy, supporting civil rights reforms and sustaining New Deal programs throughout his long political career (Wicker 1995, esp...

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