Nixon's New Deal: Welfare Reform for the Silent Majority

By Spitzer, Scott J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Nixon's New Deal: Welfare Reform for the Silent Majority


Spitzer, Scott J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


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. …

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