When Nixon & Moynihan Almost Revolutionized Welfare

Everything does feel broken. Worse than that, everything feels broken but it feels that those in power like it that way and do not wish to fix it. The schemes for gain are in their favor, and solutions always pay off a donor. Threading “winner take all” economics with corrupt crony politics, we have big money married to big politics looting the public treasury and not reforming the FIRE economy casino. Politics feels like a terrible pissing contest now with focus on winning, owning the opponent and who will win next the main obsession. Can you name anything Congress has done of import? We also have a president playing president who has an executive branch in open revolt. Even the media is wondering if this is the end of liberal democracy. It was not always like this. In fact, we sometimes saw politicians reach across the aisle to grab the best people to attack a problem in the best manner. It is a unique approach and one not seen since was the duo of President Nixon and domestic policy advisor, and future US Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. 

Moynihan and Nixon were political opposites with Moynihan a liberal policy wonk who slipped between government and academia while Nixon was a center-right politician. As noted in Ehrlichman’s book Witness to Power, it was a bit of a shock that Nixon tapped Moynihan to be a domestic policy advisor. As Ehrlichman notes, “Bob Finch persuaded Nixon that the problems of the time required Moynihan” (Witness to Power). Moynihan’s team proved to be an energetic group of young liberals that pushed Nixon and his conservative advisors. In the fall of 1969, they promoted Moynihan to a cabinet level to remove him from “operations, and into free-wheeling idea-generating” (The Haldeman Diaries). Moynihan’s big push was to “get rid of things that don’t work and try to build up the few that do”(The Haldeman Diaries). The cities were falling apart and there was no money. Almost all proposals submitted by Moynihan’s team had to be scrapped because money was so tight. This was also a different time where with the gold standard and international moves going on, the US was under pressure from foreign creditors and oil producers about expenditures that had run wild all through the 1960s. The perplexing problem the Nixon had to tackle was how to reform the welfare system as he had campaigned on, but how to do it in a manner that was soft in delivery, did not increase the deficit and was acceptable to the Democrat majority in Congress. Moynihan and Nixon put together a  Family Assistance Plan (F.A.P.) that acted as a universal basic income

The Moynihan-Nixon F.A.P. was a plan to stop the programs of LBJ’s Great Society but keep the money flowing. As Ehrlichman notes, the programs often are ways to employ Yale grads with guilty consciences. Reduce all of the administration, the paperwork and the make work projects and just cut the checks. Conservative advisor Arthur Burns wanted to stop the programs entirely to stop taxing a blue collar worker to send money to a black mom to have more kids, while per Ehrlichman Moynihan argued that the administration should “cut out the social workers (who were mostly Yale graduates with pangs of conscience) who pandered to black malingerers. Just send the entitled poor a check each month… and that blue collar worker would begin to feel better”. There were two important changes to the welfare program as it forced work incentives (workfare) and did not require the “absence of a man” in the household. The goal was through forcing work or work training that it would eventually get more people off of the dole. The other change was drawing on the report that Moynihan famously put together years earlier for LBJ about the nature of black families. The key problem there was the matriarchal structure of many black homes, and the idea of welfare being paid only to single mothers exacerbated the issue. This was a policy intending to correct prior mistakes. It was designed to be efficient. 

This is where things get thorny, and pundits lob smears at Nixon. It is used even today. Ehrlichman notes that Nixon believed it was the right thing to try to help blacks but that they would never achieve parity because of genetic problems that “all the Federal money and programs we could devise could not change” (Witness to Power). A particular moment is framed as Nixon as a horrible racist, when he is really trying to express how the poverty issue had become a race issue that no one could discuss. In April of ’69, Haldeman records in his diary, 

Got into a deep discussion of welfare… President emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to. Problem with overall welfare plan is that it forces poor whites into same position as blacks. Feels we have to get rid of the veil of hypocrisy and guilt and face reality. Pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true. Says Africa is hopeless, the worst there is Liberia, which we built.

This is a passage cited from a 700 page book to show how evil Nixon was. What is left unspoken is a forty year view of Africa in hindsight, and the unmentionable of social welfare usage disparity between races in America. Nixon was pointing out that even in 1969, politicians and policy makers had to recognize and address a situation without ever mentioning it openly. We have not had frank social policy conversations in decades.

The Nixon-Moynihan F.A.P. rolled out with near universal support. It breezed through the House, but stalled in the Senate. The odd combination of Nixon-Moynihan was checked in place by an even odder coalition of very conservative Senators and very liberal organizations and interests. As the NY Times reports in a ’73 book review of Moynihan’s post-mortem of the failure of the program, some of the worst enemies were liberals. It was not enough money, it was worse than some Northern state programs, and it required people to work. The review notes that Moynihan goes hard after liberals, blaming them for F.A.P.’s demise. The review notes that organized poor won out over doing the better thing, and the reviewers argue in favor of organized interests over unorganized interests even if the organized are a smaller number. This is the NY Times so tiny organized groups are acceptable if properly liberal. The NY Times review was written by two Columbia professors of economics and law, so skewering the program was job number one and trying to blame conservatives was number two. 

Imagine few social workers and straight cash programs that could be easily adjusted due to changing circumstances. No cadre of do gooder single 40 something women on your tax dollar. This essay is not to discuss the projects merits or simply to discuss it because I would take this over our inefficient social welfare system. What stands out much more today is how a conservative president worked with a liberal advisor to address a problem that was made worse by government policies. It is about Nixon and Moynihan working together for a positive policy change. Good governance was the desired goal. An American government had to focus on watching expenses. Moynihan was promoted to a Cabinet level position, and became a well trusted advisor to Nixon. It is from another time but feels like another world. Who was the last opposing party advisor taken in close to a president? Bill Cohen and Robert Gates have been Republican secretaries of defense for Democrat presidents. Considering Gates speeches and interviews since leaving the Obama administration, Gates did not appear to have the intimacy with Obama that Moynihan and Nixon shared. The game has changed. Our system has evolved or devolved however you want to look at it. Deficits do not matter. Reform is not reform, just new regulations and handouts to the organized. Both political parties have their academic policy wonks funded by foundations and corporations to recommend programs and initiatives that favor them. We have long moved beyond the point of good governance and positive policies.

One Comment Add yours

  1. BaboonTycoon says:

    The author seems to believe there is a possibility that things could have been different. I don’t see it. This whole situation seems terribly anomalous to me and even in the essay itself the surprise of the observers is noted. As a frequent contributor to this site, I presume that Mr. Delacroix is familiar with the problems with democracy as a system of government, but the essay here suggests otherwise. So, to wit, the partisan fighting (or pretend fighting) we have going on today is baked into democracy as a system. Democracy inherently requires there to be at least two groups of people with differing ideologies in competition to have their ideas implemented over the ideas of the other group(s). Democracy trends towards universal sufferage because of this (one group always recognizes that there are some demographics that can’t vote who would support the group if they could), which in turn leads to lowest common denominator rhetoric. And lowest common denominator rhetoric leads us to partisan warfare, which in itself is the goal of an entrenched elite.

    All the protests and anger from both sides of the aisle happening right now is directed squarely at people who don’t matter or at best have minimal effect on governance. “White supremacists,” the police, George Soros, “social justice warriors,” and so forth. Very little is directed at the people that actually hold the levers of power. Now granted, those of us from our sphere are doing good work following the money and pointing fingers at think tanks, NGOs and RINOs. And as a consequence, more and more of us get banned every day. This is evidence that the partisan fighting is just another layer of control they have over us. “Club for Growth, Chamber of Commerce, Organizing for Action and the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition aren’t the problem, it’s those racist southerners voting Republican/blue haired freaks voting Democrat! Pay no attention to our transformation of your country!” If another civil war happens, it won’t matter. The guns won’t be pointed at the right people.

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