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Nixon’s Plan to Fight Poverty and Promote Marriage 

Richard Nixon’s welfare reform effort contains lessons for today’s policymakers.

Portrait of Richard Nixon
(Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images)

History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. The debates surrounding President Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan from 1969 to 1972 and those of “pro-family” policy today are no exception. 

To achieve long-lasting welfare reform, Nixon sought to be not only pro-family, but pro-father. His goal was to support struggling, working-class families by providing incentives for male-headed, married homes. For welfare reform, the Family Assistance Plan targeted single-parent households with little to no meaningful connection to a husband or the labor market. Family structure, Nixon recognized, was the primary issue undermining the American welfare system. 

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Today, conservatives crafting pro-family policy must pay attention to the incentives their policies create. As Robert Rector and colleagues argue in a recent report, “policymakers should not respond to the Dobbs decision by seeking to restore aspects of the pre-reform welfare system that heavily subsidized single parenthood.” Instead, conservatives should look to examples from previous generations, such as Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, to craft a pro-marriage, pro-family vision for the future. Fathers, it so happens, are central to its success. 

The intellectual forerunner of the Family Assistance Plan was Milton and Rose Friedman’s negative income tax. Put simply, a negative income tax gives money to families whose income falls below a certain threshold, while requiring those with incomes above a certain threshold to pay taxes. At the time the Friedmans conceived of the plan, “service strategies” dominated the welfare system, with funds going to ever more politicized social workers and programs rather than to the poor themselves. The Friedmans' “guaranteed income” plan would have reversed this trend by utilizing the tax system to place money directly into the hands of the poor. Nonetheless, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations rejected the negative income tax proposals. 

As Daniel P. Moynihan, a Nixon advisor and lifelong Democrat, later argued, it was a source of ire for many Democrats and suspicion to some on the right that Nixon, a Republican, had embraced a plan for welfare reform formulated by traditional liberals, but rejected by previous Democratic administrations. Nonetheless, before he knew how the Family Assistance Plan would work, Nixon made it a top policy initiative. Despite initial skepticism, Gallup reported that among voters familiar with the plan, 65 percent favored it with only 20 percent in opposition. Following a television address from Nixon on August 8, 1969, the legislation passed the House of Representatives with relative ease.

In short, the Family Assistance Plan was a modified negative income tax that would support families with children. The goals of the plan, as Moynihan outlined them, were to establish national standards, build equity for the working poor, include work and family-stability incentives, and expand job training and childcare. 

The program included a basic income of $1,500 for a family of four with an extra $300 per additional child per year up to the seventh child. Unlike a traditional negative income tax, however, the Family Assistance Plan penalized recipients who refused to work or receive job training. Note that neither the pre-Nixon proposals nor the eventual Family Assistance Plan required work as a precondition for receiving benefits. Early versions of the bill included only weak work requirements, and stronger requirements were added later. 

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Still, this was the first real effort to reimagine welfare. Replacing the failed service strategy, the Family Assistance Plan was an “income strategy.” At the time, Friedman framed it as a free-market initiative because it valued the agency and consumer choices of the poor, rather than pre-determined solutions. He thought that if you can get financial support to those who need it most, they would then take responsibility to spend and invest it in ways most likely to lead to their long-term success. Without clear reliance on employment and incentives to marry, however, negative income tax studies show how an “income” approach separated from the tax-credit system threatens to further entrap individuals in cycles of poverty.

Nixon’s emphasis on male-headed families prioritized marriage in solving poverty. The failure to account for family structure in the technical details of welfare policy signals the ultimate end of any effort. As Michael Toscano recently pointed out in this essay series, the shift of marriage from a public good to a private right has meant that policymakers and political leaders alike have lost the moral authority to address basic reality: children who are raised by married parents are most likely to thrive across all measures and are least likely to remain in cycles of poverty

What is key is marriage proper, not just “two-parent families” (even if they are both the biological parents of the child). Using 2012 data, the Census Bureau estimated that “children living with two unmarried parents are more likely to live below the poverty line (38.1 percent) than children with married parents (7.5 percent)." What’s more, children in cohabiting homes are far more likely to see their parents split by age nine (50 percent).

When Nixon assumed office in 1969, around 88 percent of the nation's single-parent homes were exclusively female. The persistence of out-of-wedlock births and paternal desertion posed the difficult question of how to reengage fathers in the lives of their children. Today, there are fewer marriages and higher numbers of cohabiting parents (35 percent) but at least policymakers have a better idea where the father is: he is often in the home and more likely to be with his biological children than he was before (29 percent compared to just 12 percent in 1968). 

Since cohabitation is the growing norm over true single-parent homes, scholars have a rare opportunity. They can use pro-family policy to strengthen those vulnerable, natural bonds between unmarried parents. Welfare reform should explicitly incentivize marriage. It can function as the “dissolving glue” that restores and helps form vulnerable families. 

Child poverty has declined since Nixon’s day due to broad and overlapping anti-poverty programs and tax credits. Yet, overall child wellbeing has continued to decline. Why? Because they lack the benefits found exclusively in married families. Policymakers can take great strides towards addressing the material needs of children. But without marriage, children will face spiritual, emotional, mental, behavioral, and educational deficits. Married families, not generous welfare programs, are the best path towards upward mobility and child flourishing. 

Each child has a deep hunger for love, nurture, play, protection, and stability. This is provided best by their married mother and father. Policy can address their material needs, but unless it facilitates marriage, reform is futile.  

The dignity of the working poor and the pride of honest men and women were central to the Family Assistance Plan. Nobody, especially hardworking male-headed families, wanted to sacrifice independence. Nixon sought to counter the underlying message of the Aid to Families of Dependent Children program—that fewer children would lead to greater happiness and financial wellbeing—by expanding welfare to supplement the income of hard-working families in which the father was present. 

Despite its rhetorical support for working, intact families, however, the Family Assistance Plan’s earliest versions assumed recipients' employment but failed to effectively incentivize or require it. Rather than base payment on taxable income, the plan first allowed recipients to declare their quarterly earnings. Nixon infamously told Moynihan that “he didn’t give a damn about the work requirement,” and Moynihan himself saw it as a political necessity more than an essential feature of the design. For Nixon, this attitude may have resulted from unchecked zeal to solve a pressing issue facing hard-working, married families, perhaps prompted by Nixon’s experience growing up in a poor, working-class family. Nixon had seen his own father work hard to provide for his family, and wanted to provide prompt support for other such families. 

Despite Nixon’s emphasis on supplementing the income of working-class families and his disdain for the AFDC, the Senate Finance Committee staff produced tables exposing the Family Assistance Plan’s disincentive to work. As Chairman, Senator Russell B. Long found that a father in a four-person family who earned $2,000 per year would receive benefits that raised his total income to $2,960. But this amount was “less than what he would get if he were totally unemployed,” Long reported. “In other words, he can increase his family’s income by… quitting work entirely.” Indeed, under the Family Assistance Plan, an unemployed family with no earnings would receive $3,000 from the plan. 

Nonetheless, the debates sparked by the Family Assistance Plan and its employment-related shortcomings laid the foundation for Senator Long’s Earned Income Tax Credit proposal and subsequent welfare policy reforms that are still in play today. 

The Family Assistance Plan ultimately failed in the Senate Finance Committee. Heeding Vice President Spiro Agnew’s warning, conservative Republicans voted against the bill given liberal Democrats’ stated interest in pursuing a larger, guaranteed income program. Liberal Democrats, in turn, voted against the bill because they felt it did not provide enough benefits. 

Following this anti-climactic end, the Family Assistance Plan set the stage for what would become the United States’s preferred strategy for addressing poverty. A bipartisan effort, subsequent proposals sent direct assistance to families through the tax system based on hours worked to enrich the earnings of low-income households. 

Given his extensive research into the Family Assistance Plan, Senator Long conceived of and submitted a “work-bonus” program as an antidote to the work-reducing effects of the Family Assistance Plan. It was not until 1975 that Senator Long’s proposal became temporary law under President Gerald Ford. Later, the plan found favor under the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations. Together, Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan and Senator Long’s work-bonus plan are the forerunners of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the basis of the Child Tax Credit we have today. 

The interplay between marriage and work in family policy is a classic “chicken or the egg” question. While marriage leads to higher employment outcomes, employment makes men more marriageable. Yet employment, though essential to overcoming poverty, is not sufficient on its own. 

So, which comes first? Cohabitating fathers have lower levels of education and employment outcomes that suggest the need for vocational, non-college pathways. On the other hand, family structure is one of the biggest indicators of one’s ability to break the poverty cycle. To this end, marriage penalties in means-tested and tax-credit programs must be reversed to favor married couples. One in ten unmarried Americans cite “fear of losing ‘access to government benefits’” should they marry. “Poor and working-class parents,” Brad Wilcox argues, “should not have to choose between seeking government benefits for their children and giving their children the benefit of two married parents.” 

Policymakers must reward marriage if they want to see long-term success in reducing poverty in the United States. The reality is indisputable: married families are most likely to experience upward mobility.

Looking back on the Family Assistance Plan, Nixon had the right idea about the role of marriage in minimizing poverty. His plan conveyed dignity and supplemental support to hard-working families who were struggling to make ends meet. Even so, the weak work requirements, negative employment incentives, and lack of tangible marriage benefits remained. The Family Assistance Plan nevertheless provides important lessons for policymakers today. 

The plan was proof that making a fundamental shift in thinking, rather than pursuing incremental change, was not only possible but good policy. This is not to say that the Family Assistance Plan should have been implemented as-is, given its clear shortcomings. The proposal did, however, usher in the shift to an income-based relief strategy, utilizing the tax system to connect welfare support to real earnings. 

The Family Assistance Plan set the ball moving towards the best pro-work, pro-family approaches in welfare today. It sparked a debate that heightened awareness among social scientists and policymakers that incentives matter. When it comes to promoting marriage-led family formation, as Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan sought to do, it is important to apply this lesson where it is most obvious. By offering benefits to one family type, the number of such families will increase.

If conservatives want to help working families, the reforms they pursue should incentivize not just work and cohabitation, but marriage.

This article is part of the American System series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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