Catholic Cacophony: Richard Nixon, the Church, and Welfare Reform

By McAndrews, Lawrence J. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Catholic Cacophony: Richard Nixon, the Church, and Welfare Reform


McAndrews, Lawrence J., The Catholic Historical Review


President Richard Nixon's 1969 welfare reform proposal, the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), debuted to rave reviews from conservatives (who appreciated its work requirement) and liberals (who lauded its minimum income). The two-thirds of Americans who approved of FAP included many Catholics and their bishops. However, Nixon ran out of enthusiasm, and Congress ran out of time. By 1972, the bishops had turned left, insisting on a higher income floor and a work incentive rather than a mandate, whereas many of their congregants had turned right. Nixon stopped courting the bishops and started wooing their flock, helping to ensure his re-election victory and FAP's legislative defeat.

Keywords: Family Assistance Plan; McHugh, Bishop James Thomas; Moynihan, Daniel Patrick; Nixon, Richard M.; United States Catholic Conference

Although attention to the "Catholic vote" was not new in 1969, the degree to which a president courted it was. The arguments of journalists Kevin Phillips, Richard Scammon, and Ben Wattenberg - that an electoral realignment of working-class, white ethnics from Democrats to Republicans could occur if only the new president transmitted the proper political signals - fascinated Richard Nixon. Prominent among these potential Republicans were Catholics, and prominent among these political signals was welfare reform.1

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nixon's domestic affairs adviser and product of the Irish-Catholic working class of New York, had, with sociologist Nathan Glazer in Beyond the Melting Pot (Cambridge, MA, 1963), predicted that "religion and race would define the next stage in the evolution of the American people." Moynihan would recall Nixon's interest in the New Yorker magazine article "The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class," in which Pete Hamill described the resentments of the hard-working blue-collar class in New York - too poor to live in the suburbs and too proud to accept charity By encouraging dependency and discouraging work, "welfare," Moynihan related, "was the supercharged object of their fury"2

Welfare reform, therefore, offered Nixon a way of confronting New Deal and Great Society liberalism while converting many disaffected liberals. If the politics came to overshadow the principle behind Nixon's noble effort to employ the able and insure the unable, so be it. After all, it was not as if Nixon did not believe in what he was doing. If it was not for the transparent politics of wooing Catholic voters, the Quaker president privately allowed, he might even join their Church.3

Nixon would not become a Catholic, and welfare reform would not become law. But the political and policy considerations that shaped and sank his Family Assistance Plan (FAP) helped forge a legacy from which the country would not turn back.

The Proposal

Although Nixon's welfare reform proposal would constitute a repudiation of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, it originated with Johnson appointees, evolving from a task force recommendation by Richard Nathan of the Brookings Institution to an initiative by Worth Bateman, deputy assistant secretary for planning and evaluation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), and economist James Lyday of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). By March 24, 1969, the Bateman-Lyday plan had become a position paper drafted by the Urban Affairs Council Subcommittee on Welfare.4

The so-called Family Security System (FSS), endorsed by Moynihan and HEW Secretary Robert Finch, included a negative income tax of $1500 a year (later $1600) for a family of four, which would increase by $450 for each additional adult and $300 for each additional child up to a family of seven, which would receive $2400. Once individuals within the family were employed, the family's payment would decline 50 cents for every dollar earned, until it eventually disappeared.These families also would be eligible for food stamps. The program, to be administered by the Social Security Administration, would mandate minimum-payment levels for the blind, disabled, and aged. …

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