Reflections on Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago, on August 8th, 1969, President Nixon proposed a new anti-poverty plan in an address to the nation. The Family Assistance Plan (FAP) would have provided families with an annual guaranteed minimum income (GMI) of $500 for each adult and $300 for each child. Unlike Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the primary poverty alleviation program at the time, FAP’s GMI would have gone to all families–unemployed poor and working poor families, with or without a “breadwinner” in the house.

It was a startlingly liberal proposal from a Republican president, but Nixon understood that it was the only way to provide benefits to the economically-insecure working class voters whose support he sought and at the same time address the developing crisis of rapidly increasing welfare rolls: give a flat grant to all poor families and allow them to combine the grant with earned income up to a decent standard of living, rather than withdrawing the grant as soon as recipients earned more than a few dollars, as AFDC did. By including the “breadwinners” in the program–fathers–rather than excluding them as AFDC did, Nixon also expected to address the “crisis of the black family” identified by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a controversial report he wrote when he was Nixon’s domestic policy advisor.

FAP would have solved the inherent design dilemma of poverty assistance programs: a benefit for the unemployed poor high enough to meet their needs was likely to be higher than the low-wage jobs many of them might find in the labor market. There are only two ways around this dilemma for benefits programs: lower benefits to the unemployed poor–and increase destitution–or supplement the wages of the working poor as well. To his credit, Nixon chose the latter option, and did it in the way that empowers workers–by providing the full grant to workers with zero income, rather than what we actually ended up with after FAP’s defeat–the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which provides nothing to those with no income, and its maximum benefit to full-time, above minimum wage workers.

In a longer essay published in Basic Income Today I challenge the dominant explanations about FAP’s defeat–the racism of whites opposed to expanding income support to blacks, or the cultural resistance to erasing the distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. I tell the story of Louisiana Senator Russell Long’s role in FAP’s defeat, his use of the debate over FAP to enact the EITC, and why he and other Southern elites resisted what Nixon intended as a massive redistribution of resources to the South.

FAP wasn’t perfect. For one thing, recipients had to demonstrate their willingness to work, so it wasn’t an unconditional GMI, or a basic income. And its benefit level fell short of the poverty threshold and was well below AFDC payments in the North at the time. But FAP would have been the first step toward a more effective poverty alleviation strategy. FAP’s child benefit was independent of the parents’ willingness to work, which means it would have created a child allowance–means-tested, but on its way to a basic income for children. And benefits that went to both the working and non-working poor could have created a large constituency for its expansion and empowered the poor to agitate for a greater redistribution of income and wealth through other means–unionization, higher minimum wage laws, or an unconditional basic income.

Helping Men by Helping Women?

In Sunday’s New York Times, Stephanie Coontz suggests that working men would benefit from policies that “put women first” because so many men face the kinds of challenges that working women have faced for decades: unstable part-time work, the high cost of child care, and stagnant wages at the low end of the economic ladder.  Coontz rightly points out that “gender-neutral” social policies so often assume a male perspective, but characterizing family-friendly policies as “putting women first” perpetuates the assumption that family responsibilities are primarily women’s.

What we need are social policies designed for the “universal caregiver” in Nancy Fraser’s term, a model of citizenship superior to both the “universal breadwinner” model, which assumes unfettered availability for employment and no caregiver responsibilities, and the “caregiver parity” model, which regards caregivers as, one might say, separate but equal to breadwinners, and deserving of support for that special care giving function. Instead of helping low-income male workers as a byproduct of supporting working women, shouldn’t we aim for policies that enable all adults to work and care for their children, parents, neighbors, and anyone else who needs it? (See Fraser, Nancy. “After the Family Wage: A Postindustrial Thought Experiment,” in Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition, Routledge. 1997, 41-66.)