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Journal of American History[T]his monograph . . . represents a substantial achievement and a major addition to the literature on America's welfare state.
— Edward D. Berkowitz
Today the United States has one of the highest poverty rates among the world's rich industrial democracies. The Failed Welfare Revolution shows us that things might have turned out differently. During the 1960s and 1970s, policymakers in three presidential administrations tried to replace the nation's existing welfare system with a revolutionary program to guarantee Americans basic economic security. Surprisingly from today's vantage point, guaranteed income plans received broad bipartisan support in the 1960s. One proposal, President Nixon's Family Assistance Plan, nearly passed into law in the 1970s, and President Carter advanced a similar bill a few years later. The failure of these proposals marked the federal government's last direct effort to alleviate poverty among the least advantaged and, ironically, sowed the seeds of conservative welfare reform strategies under President Reagan and beyond.
This episode has largely vanished from America's collective memory. Here, Brian Steensland tells the whole story for the first time—from why such an unlikely policy idea first developed to the factors that sealed its fate. His account, based on extensive original research in presidential archives, draws on mainstream social science perspectives that emphasize the influence of powerful stakeholder groups and policymaking institutions. But Steensland also shows that some of the most potent obstacles to guaranteed income plans were cultural. Most centrally, by challenging Americans' longstanding distinction between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, the plans threatened the nation's cultural, political, and economic status quo.
Co-Winner of the 2009 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book, Section on Sociology of Culture, American Sociological Association
"[T]his monograph . . . represents a substantial achievement and a major addition to the literature on America's welfare state."—Edward D. Berkowitz, Journal of American History
"The Failed Welfare Revolution is a well-researched book that fills a significant gap in the literature on U.S. social policy. The theoretical perspective is innovative, and Steensland makes a strong case for the study of the role of ideas and culture in policymaking."—Daniel Béland, Political Science Quarterly
"Brian Steensland's highly detailed account and analysis of guaranteed annual income (GAl) proposals during the Nixon and Carter administrations provides an important contribution to the research on social welfare policy in the United States, addressing a significant lacuna in this literature."—Kenneth Hudson, American Journal of Sociology
"This scholarly book will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in current debates about the merits of a guaranteed income policy. It is richly documented, draws effectively on theoretical ideas and transcends the limitations of many historical accounts by linking developments in the 1970s to current social welfare debates. An added bonus is the discussion of proposals by the Carter administration later in the decade to reformulate these ideas. The author's reflection on the role of cultural factors in social welfare thinking also makes a significant contribution and will hopefully facilitate future analyses that will explore the importance of culture in social policy."—James Midgley, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare
"The Failed Welfare Revolution is an interesting retelling and synthesis of what happened some 40 years ago, and anybody interested in the subject will find this work to be of value."—Ralf Hertwig, Monthly Labor Review
"Steensland's precision in analyzing the guaranteed income debates throughout the book is impressive, as is his use of extensive original research from presidential archives. He has done a great service in so thoroughly deconstructing for the first time a neglected episode in the history of us (and Canadian) social policy."—Richard Pereira, Labour-Le Travail
"[A] theoretically rich and historically detailed account of domestic policy centered on the 1970s."—Richard K. Caputo, Eastern Economic Journal
In the 1960s, a new idea for combating poverty emerged that promised a revolutionary change for American social welfare policy. Though the idea had a complex history, one of its main justifications was articulated by a commission appointed by President Johnson to evaluate the nation's antipoverty programs. The commission, which was made up primarily of business leaders and economists, issued a report in 1969 that urged making a sharp break with past approaches to fighting poverty. On the basis of its analysis, the commission believed that the existing welfare system was founded on the untenable premise that good jobs at adequate wages were available to all. Therefore it did not provide sufficient coverage for the poor who were left behind in an increasingly postindustrial economy. The report accordingly criticized the existing system for sorting the poor into different types of programs based on their ability or willingness to work. The report contended,
Our economic and social structure virtually guarantees poverty for millions of Americans.... The simple fact is that most of the poor remain poor because access to income through work is currently beyond their reach.... There are not two distinct categories ofpoor-those who can work and those who cannot. Nor can the poor be divided into those who will work and those who will not. For many, the desire to work is strong, but the opportunities are not readily available.
On these grounds the commission proposed replacing much of the current welfare system with a program that provided all Americans with a guaranteed annual income based solely on their economic need.
Guaranteed annual income programs broke sharply with past approaches to fighting poverty. Most important, they treated the unemployed and working poor in the same way. People who earned below a certain amount of income per year-whether because of unemployment or because they worked but were still poor-would receive cash benefits from the federal government to raise their annual income to a minimum level. The programs were innovative in other ways as well. They expanded eligibility for benefits from primarily single mothers with children to include two-parent families with a fully employed breadwinner. And they called for a comprehensive federal program to replace locally run programs that varied widely in their levels of support. All told, these changes marked a philosophical shift in which the government extended the right to basic economic security to the nation's poorest citizens for the first time. By the late 1960s both liberals and conservatives heralded the proposals as "a striking example of an idea whose time has come."
From today's vantage point, it may seem strange that guaranteed annual income programs were ever seriously considered in the United States, since they run contrary to the nation's approach to welfare reform both before and after this era. So it may seem even more surprising that the strongest contender among these proposals nearly became law. President Nixon's Family Assistance Plan passed the House of Representatives by large majorities in both 1970 and 1971. Commentators at the time also expected it to pass in the more liberal Senate, but it never reached a full vote. Jimmy Carter made comprehensive welfare reform a major campaign issue in his bid for the presidency in 1976, and his administration took up guaranteed annual income plans once in office. This continuing consideration shows that the guaranteed income idea was not simply a product of "the 1960s." Carter's proposal fared less well than Nixon's and never reached the floor of Congress. This second failure of guaranteed annual income proposals marked their disappearance from the nation's legislative landscape and foreshadowed the diminishing prospect of a system that provides basic economic security for the nation's citizens.
The rise and fall of guaranteed annual income (GAI) proposals sheds light on the nation's provision for the poor in a number of ways. Perhaps most important, understanding the failure of these programs helps explain why the United States, while having one of the highest gross domestic product levels per capita in the world, lags considerably behind other advanced industrial democracies in rates of poverty reduction. Comparisons between these countries show that guaranteed income-style programs, such as family allowances, have proved to be among the most effective antipoverty measures available to policymakers. More directly comparable evaluations of antipoverty measures in the United States and Canada show a similar pattern. Canada's more extensive incorporation of GAI-style programs during the 1970s and 1980s moved its poverty rates from nearly seven percentage points above that in the United States to four points below it.
The history of GAI proposals is also significant because of its role in the evolution of U.S. social policy. These programs were the dominant welfare reform strategy of the late 1960s and 1970s, which was the transitional period between the liberal policy innovations of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty programs and the conservative reforms of the Reagan administration and beyond. Views of the welfare state clearly changed during this era. The struggle over GAI programs not only provides the primary lens through which this transition can be concretely understood, but in many ways, the strategies utilized during the debate over the plans actively produced, sometimes inadvertently, the intellectual and political groundwork for the subsequent conservative ascendancy.
From a more analytic perspective, examining why GAI plans became "the road not taken" can tell us as much, and in some ways more, about the nature of American antipoverty policy as examining episodes of successful legislative passage. The proposals represent the boldest attempt to transform U.S. welfare policy in the twentieth century because they attacked the problem of poverty so directly. Doing so called into question deeply held assumptions about the causes of poverty, the adequacy of the labor market, and the goals of welfare reform that are rarely debated in American society but that nonetheless guide policymaking. These assumptions are central to the cultural foundation of the American welfare state, but they are challenging to study because they usually go unspoken. The challenge posed by GAI proposals threw the impact of these assumptions on policy development into sharp relief, albeit for a brief period. This makes the struggle over GAI plans a valuable case for close examination, since it provides a rare window into the cultural processes that influence, and indeed constitute, policy development. As I will discuss later in the chapter, taking into account these types of cultural factors helps explain a number of puzzles about the politics of GAI plans that conventional perspectives on U.S. policy development have difficulty explaining.
Perhaps the most relevant puzzle is why GAI proposals disappeared, that is, why they are no longer considered by policymakers, even though many of the same problems that brought them to the public agenda in the 1960s and 1970s-low wages, economic restructuring, and inadequate welfare coverage-continue to be pressing concerns in contemporary America. Guaranteed income plans are still consistent with goals held by both liberals and conservatives, as suggested by recent calls for these sorts of plans on both the political left and right. Though there is a considerable amount of research on twentieth-century social welfare policy, little of it has focused on GAI policy. Thus there is scant basis upon which to assess the significance and disappearance of these policies. This book traces the rise and fall of GAI proposals, illuminates the puzzling politics of the debates they launched, and finds that, despite their failure, the struggle over GAI proposals had a lasting impact on the American welfare state.
The book is oriented by three general arguments, which I briefly outline here and then elaborate in sections to follow. First, the main obstacle to GAI legislation was the cultural distinction that Americans draw between different categories of poor people. Put most simply, Americans have long considered some types of people, based on their perceived adherence to the work ethic, to be more worthy of government assistance than others. As the quote at the beginning of this chapter suggests, almost all welfare programs implemented before and after this episode have based the provision of government benefits on the work capacity of the poor. In contrast, the most significant feature of GAI programs was their provision of benefits based on economic need alone. The proposals placed all the categories of poor people in the same government program and treated them in the same way. This challenged the political, economic, and cultural status quo: it presumed that previously separate categories of the poor were morally equivalent to one another; it called into question existing definitions of "welfare"; it created a new category of government beneficiary (the "working poor"); and it rested on the premise that the labor market could not serve as the sole source of economic security for the nation's able-bodied citizens. After the failure of Nixon's proposal, legislators responded to the threats posed by GAI plans by creating new antipoverty programs-Supplemental Security Income and the Earned Income Tax Credit- that institutionally reinforced the categories that Nixon's plan had threatened to dismantle.
Second, GAI policy had multiple meanings attributed to it by various supporters. The proposals were ambiguous and underspecified when experts first advanced them. Advocates from a number of ideological perspectives-libertarians, moderates, and socialists alike-all defined the plans as a promising way to alleviate poverty. Other stakeholders soon began to see the plans as a potential solution for other types of problems that were only tangentially related to poverty reduction, such as fiscal crises that beset state governments and administrative bloat within the government bureaucracy. These different policy meanings served as the basis for a diverse array of interests that propelled GAI proposals forward and, at least initially, masked the proposals' threat to the categorical logic of the existing welfare system. Understanding this multiplicity of policy meanings is essential for understanding how GAI plans arose on the policy agenda. As the debates over the next fifteen years foreclosed many of these ways of seeing GAI plans, their challenge to the status quo became clearer. This narrowing process can be seen both in the ecology of competing policy ideas among policymakers and in the ways in which GAI proposals were depicted in the media.
Third, as the discussion so far may suggest, the debates over GAI proposals did not simply reflect changing perceptions of poverty and the welfare state during this period; they were central in producing these changes. These changing perceptions, in turn, were the direct antecedent for the rise of conservative social policy reforms in the 1980s. Stated differently, Reagan's welfare state retrenchment was a much more direct product of the debate over GAI proposals than it was a reaction to Johnson's War on Poverty programs, to which it is more often seen as a response. Arguments for GAI proposals were based on new critiques of the existing welfare system and a new mode of expert analysis that focused on individual rather than social causes of poverty. The ascendant conservative movement appropriated these critiques and analytic innovations and effectively turned them against the welfare state in the 1970s. Guaranteed income proposals further served as the foil for critiques of an "entitlement" philosophy of welfare reform that directly paved the way for a new "paternalist" approach to welfare reform in the 1980s. Finally, the new Supplemental Security Income and Earned Income Tax Credit programs not only divided the poor by giving different categories of people different stakes in the welfare system, but they relieved some of the social pressure for comprehensive antipoverty reform that was present in the 1960s. These new programs isolated the most politically weak categories of the poor, making them highly vulnerable to the budget cutbacks that targeted the "undeserving" poor in the 1980s.
The account I advance in the book differs from conventional social scientific perspectives on welfare policy development, though it is indebted to the many insights they have generated. This difference stems in part from the book's main focus on the idea of providing Americans with a guaranteed annual income, rather than on a particular legislative episode. Yet it also reflects an effort to show the impact of cultural influences on welfare policy development in ways that are not typical, but that are essential for understanding the rise and fall of GAI proposals and, I would argue, policy development more generally. Broadly speaking, scholars typically emphasize the influence of two types of factors when seeking to explain patterns of policy development: the relative influence of various stakeholder groups such as business elites, government experts, and social movements; and the constraints on policy development imposed by U.S. institutional arrangements, such as federalism, sectionalism (regional differences), the congressional committee structure, and existing policy design. These factors played important roles in the development and failure of GAI plans (though sometimes in unanticipated ways), and I discuss their impact throughout the book. Neither of these perspectives, however, is well equipped to examine how perceptions of worthiness attributed to different categories of poor people structured the entire debate over GAI proposals or how the varying meanings attributed to the proposals elucidate the puzzling patterns of support and opposition that the policies generated. My account highlights the importance of these factors and shows how they interact with more conventional factors-for instance, how perceptions of moral worthiness and stigma shaped the policy preferences of important stakeholders; how particular understandings of poverty and the poor gained prominence over others due to the nation's policymaking process; and how the pattern of preexisting public assistance programs constrained advocates of GAI plans when it came to framing these new proposals in culturally resonant ways. In the sections that follow, I discuss the contributions of existing perspectives to understanding the trajectory of GAI proposals, point out where they fall short, and elaborate on how they can be strengthened by paying more sustained attention to the cultural factors at play in welfare reform.
The debates over GAI proposals took place simultaneously in two important places: among members of the federal policymaking community and in the public sphere through the mass media. I examined the deliberation over the proposals in each domain, collecting government documents from the Nixon and Carter administrations and media coverage in newspapers and periodicals. Comparing both expert deliberation and public discourse helps overcome a typical problem in policy studies, which is the difficulty of disentangling policy elites' "private" worldviews and "public" framing strategies.
Furthermore, most studies of social policy focus mainly on elites, whether government bureaucrats, politicians, or interest groups. These groups are clearly crucial for shaping social policy. However, they do so within a broader public context that constrains their policy options and shapes their strategies of public persuasion. A full understanding of this episode requires looking at both how elite framing influenced public sentiments and how the "common knowledge" created by media accounts influenced decisions among policymakers.
Excerpted from The Failed Welfare Revolution by Brian Steensland
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University. Excerpted by permission.
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INTRODUCTION: Understanding the Failed Welfare Revolution 1
CHAPTER ONE: The Rise of Guaranteed Annual Income 28
CHAPTER TWO: Guaranteed Annual Income Goes Public 52
CHAPTER THREE: The Origins and Transformation of the Nixon Plan 79
CHAPTER FOUR: Nixon's Family Assistance Plan Stalls 120
CHAPTER FIVE: Defeat and Its Policy Legacy 157
CHAPTER SIX: Carter and the Program for Better Jobs and Income 182
CHAPTER SEVEN: Lost Opportunities, Consequences, and Lessons 219
CHAPTER EIGHT: Culture and Welfare Policy Development 232