The notion of Republicans supporting guaranteed minimum income seems as remote today as it did in 1950, when they were solidly against President Truman’s proposed sequel to the New Deal, the Fair Deal. They had managed with Southern Democrats to kill most of those proposals. However, much changed in twenty years. Although President Richard Nixon had run for office in 1968 on a platform of moderate conservatism and had capitalized on opposition to the Great Society, by 1970 it was clear that he was not following a conservative course. This was highly apparent in his administration’s proposal for guaranteed minimum income in the form of the Family Assistance Plan, announced in 1969. This proposal had been crafted principally by special assistant Daniel P. Moynihan, who would serve in the Senate from New York as a liberal Democrat from 1977-2001. The reasons behind this proposal and Nixon’s acceptance of it derived from the following political realities:
“. The discovery and identification of poverty as a national problem and the commitment by President Johnson to eliminate poverty.
.The riots on the street and the quiet hunger in the countryside – both of which have been attributed in some degree to the malfunctioning of the welfare system.
. The shift of thinking of welfare as a nonenforceable privilege over to thinking of it as a legal right to stated benefits in response to objectively determined needs.
. The revolt by state and local taxpayers who see the escalating costs of welfare as too much for them to bear without at least some new sharing arrangement with Washington.”
This shift in realities stemming from the 1960s combined with a Republican willingness to support Nixon’s initiatives resulted in increased ideological flexibility. Republicans were backing proposals under Nixon that they would have decried under Democratic presidents. The clearest example is the contrast of the House vote between the Brannan Plan and the Family Assistance Plan.
Twenty-one years earlier the GOP had voted down the Brannan Plan in the House by a vote of 160-4, a Fair Deal proposal that if enacted would have provided guaranteed minimum income for farmers in exchange for the free market determining the price of agricultural commodities. The measure’s death came from a combination of rural legislators who were happy with existing price supports and conservatives who opposed the idea of guaranteed minimum income. The Family Assistance Plan on the other hand, achieved a GOP House vote of 102-72. The exchange in this case was a guaranteed federal payment of $1600 a year to an family of four with no income, with poor working families eligible for payments on a decreasing scale based on income in exchange for requiring the head of the household to register for work or training (Welfare Reform, CQ Almanac 1970). The measure also promised to save states 10-30% on welfare costs. Since the bill was passed under a closed rule, liberal Democrats had no chance to amend the bill more to their liking, but most voted for it as the opportunity would arise in the Senate. Something to know about the House is that for better or worse, the House is a more efficient body for legislation. The Senate, being the chamber of debate, would give this measure a far harder time.
While in the House, most of the opposition to the Family Assistance Plan had come from conservative Republicans and Democrats, but in the Senate it attracted criticism from liberal Senators Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) and Fred R. Harris (D-Okla.), who found that the job opportunities and benefits were not enough. This critique split liberal votes, as Ribicoff ultimately voted it out of committee while Harris opposed. Joining the opposition was Sen. Albert Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.), who had led the charge against the Brannan Plan when he was serving in the House. Conservatives, led by John J. Williams (R-Del.), opposed the measure on the grounds of cost, that it would substantially increase the welfare rolls, and would not end the “welfare trap”. Williams doggedly demanded figures and questioned HEW Secretary Elliot L. Richardson on them, and found that for Northern welfare recipients, the “welfare trap” existed in this legislation. As the benefits of welfare declined with rising income, there would be a range of income in which the worker would not be incentivized to make more as they would lose out more money on welfare than gain from the added pay. The measure also gained a powerful foe in Finance Committee chair Russell Long (D-La.), the son of populist demagogue Huey Long, whose suspicion of the measure was summed up in this sentence: “For all the defects of the present system, the mind of man is always capable of devising something worse” (Welsh). Ultimately, the measure proved too divisive for Republicans and Democrats of conservative and liberal stripes, resulting in the proposal’s death. The Nixon Administration would continue trying until dropping the issue during the 1972 election.
“HR 5345. Amend the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, As Amended. On Gore Amend.” Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/81-1949/h67
Lampman, R.J. (November 1969). Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan. Institute for Research on Poverty.
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Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/91-1970/h222
“Welfare Reform: Disappointment for the Administration.” CQ Almanac 1970.
Welsh, J. (7 January 1973). Welfare reform: born Aug. 8, 1969; died, Oct. 4, 1972 – A sad case study of the American political process. The New York Times.