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Eliminate family and child poverty: Richard Nixon may help in today’s debate

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Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Josh Hawley (Mo.) — who certainly did not find common ground on another recent issue — Marco Rubio and others are seeking ways to address family poverty and its impact on family stability. Many Hill Democrats and the Biden administration have the same aim. The drive to reduce or eliminate child poverty is not limited to the Congress and the White House. Mayors for a Guaranteed Income has formed, with mayors across the country from Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, to Levar Stoney of Richmond, Va., finding funding for experiments in their jurisdictions with a guaranteed family income.

The $1.9 trillion rescue package this March included billions in payments to families with children. That income support is temporary, expiring at the end of this year.

Its passage, its pending expiration, and the fact that both Republicans and Democrats are seriously engaged on the issue, offer hope that the most obvious way to address poverty — giving money to those in need — will find traction in public policy.

There are pendulum swings in American social policy. A quarter century ago, in 1996, Republicans in Congress pushed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The “PRWORA” was less about work opportunity than work requirements. As part of this, a block grant to the states was created, known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (“TANF”). In doing so, Congress abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children. “AFDC” was the part of the 1930s Social Security Acts specifically focused on child poverty and protection. Under the PRWORA and TANF, welfare recipients, most often single mothers with children, were to be under supervision of welfare workers, whose task was to move them into the labor force under a formal work plan. If they could not find and keep work after a number of years, their public assistance would halt. Permanently. These were the high-water mark of efforts to reduce the rolls of public assistance, or “welfare.” Republicans, in control of the Congress, sent the bill to President Clinton, thinking he would not sign it. He signed it. Key Clinton administration members resigned in protest.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic U.S. senator from New York, excoriated his Democratic president in scathing terms for what he said was punitive legislation. Moynihan then, and for his entire career, strove to promote family stability and alleviate poverty.

A quarter century before PRWORA and TANF, Moynihan was Assistant to the President for the new — and Republican — president, Richard Nixon. Moynihan argued to Nixon that the absence of cash is what makes people poor. Nixon understood that from his own, often hard-scrabble childhood. Nixon was aware, too, of a bipartisan array of advocates of a minimum guaranteed income for the poor. Besides Moynihan, these included conservative economist Milton Friedman and even “Mr. Conservative”, Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft before him; the Republican Ripon Society; liberal Democratic economists such as Joseph Pechman and James Tobin; and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Powerful figures in Nixon’s administration like George Shultz and Robert Finch urged Nixon to embrace a guaranteed family income, replacing the existing welfare system and also undergirding the “working poor” with a “negative income tax”, payments to families that were scaled back and zeroed out, or increased, as family income increased — or fell.

Nixon announced his Family Assistance Plan in August, 1969 and fought for over two years for it, with limp liberal interest since it was, after all, Richard Nixon. More crucially there was conservative resistance in the GOP. California Gov. Ronald Reagan used “FAP” to peel away Republicans from Richard Nixon. Reagan led the GOP move away from Nixon’s cash for the poor approach and toward the 1990s welfare “reform.” Can we have come full circle?

In 1969, Nixon considered virtually every issue we now face.

First, instead of full, European style “Family Allowance” or “Children’s Allowance” that would give every person a sum without regard to their need, he chose a needs-based approach. His FAP would help both the dependent poor and those working, even full time but earning too little to be above the poverty line. This was for at least two reasons. First, he was not proposing a “natalist” incentive for American women to have more children. America had a growing population, due to fertility and immigration. He was focused on alleviating poverty.

A second reason was his fiscal prudence. FAP would have gone a huge way toward elimination of American poverty, but was still within spending constraints. His Democratic opponent in the 1972 campaign, Sen. George McGovern, proposed a cash grant for every man, woman and child in America. Nixon tore into it for its stunning cost and for millionaires receiving it. Both parties as they enter intense debate this year about quitting, renewing, or making permanent family cash assistance should try to get the most reduction of poverty for the dollar. That means an income-tested plan that will taper off before providing aid to upper middle-class families and their children.

Nixon weighed work requirements, work training, and day care to support work for parents of young children. He even contemplated having the government as a last resort provider of work for those wanting jobs but not finding them. For Nixon the crux was cash to reduce or eliminate poverty, and indeed, hunger, in America. His radical expansion of the Food Stamp program he intended to be a transition to his all-cash Family Assistance Plan. FAP was liberal; it was libertarian — it did not tell people what they could do with the money they received. FAP offered a chance to climb out of poverty. It acknowledged the vast damage to children and their parents of living in poverty, and to society later of the costs of dealing with the results.

It is gratifying to see this renewed national awareness, including among Republicans whose party over 50 years moved in a very different direction. Half a century later, Richard Nixon can offer us a strategy. Even a blueprint.

John Roy Price is the former CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh. He was Special Assistant to President Richard Nixon and Executive Secretary of the Council for Urban Affairs, chaired by the president. He is author of “The Last Liberal Republican: An Insider’s Perspective on Nixon’s Surprising Social Policy,” University Press of Kansas, June 18, 2021.

Tags Eric Garcetti Josh Hawley Marco Rubio Mitt Romney

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