Guaranteed income’s moment in the sun

July 27, 2023 – 10:56 am

Nixon_speech_Inline.jpgPresident Richard Nixon, pictured here months after he publicly proposed his “Family Assistance Plan, ” in August 1969.

Nixon himself refused to call the FAP a guaranteed annual income, saying that “a guaranteed income establishes a right [income] without any responsibilities [work] …There is no reason why one person should be taxed so another can choose to live idly.” But, despite Nixon’s rhetorical distinction, many conservatives opposed the president’s plan for just those reasons: they worried not only about cost, but also about the creation of a large class of people dependent on “welfare.”

Rhetoric aside, the FAP was indeed a form of GAI. The President’s Commission certainly thought so, writing in their letter submitting “Poverty Amid Plenty” to Nixon, “We are pleased to note that the basic structure of the Family Assistance Program is similar to that of the program we have proposed…Both programs represent a marked departure from past principles and assumptions that have proven to be incorrect.”

Nixon’s FAP was very moderate: it only applied to families with children (childless couples and individuals were out of luck), included a work requirement for householders considered “employable, ” and would not have increased benefits for AFDC recipients in states providing relatively high benefit levels.

For a family of four without any other income, the FAP would provide $1, 600 (2013: $10, 121). But a family that did have income from employment would get a declining amount of FAP dollars until family income reached $3, 920 (2013: $24, 798). A family of four that had been earning $12, 652 in 2013 dollars would have had its income increased through the FAP to $18, 725. Ultimately, the vast majority of benefits would have gone to the “working poor, ” a significant departure from then-existing programs that denied welfare benefits to those who were employed.

The FAP sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives comfortably, 243 to 155, but stalled in the Senate.

Many Congressional Democrats insisted that assuring the dignity of the poor required a more expansive program than the FAP, and criticized that proposal for its low income floor and work requirements. Representative William F. Ryan (D-N.Y.), who had been the first to introduce legislation for a GAI (in 1968), told the House in April 1970 that “accepting the concept of income maintenance and establishing the mechanics for implementing that concept are two far different things.” And though Ryan suggested “we do well to embrace the concept, ” he characterized Nixon’s FAP as “seriously flawed.”

As an alternative, Ryan pointed to the proposal of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), which had argued for a much higher base income: $5, 500/year (2013: $32, 910). Ryan argued on the floor of the House of Representatives that:

[A] guaranteed annual income is not a privilege. It should be a right to which every American is entitled. No country as affluent as ours can allow any citizen or his family not to have an adequate diet, not to have adequate housing, not to have adequate health services and not to have adequate educational opportunity — in short, not to be able to have a life with dignity.

Come Home, America

Nixon and Congressional Democrats, though, were not the only ones with a plan. In fact, the 1972 Democratic nominee for president — Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.) — rolled out his own GAI proposal in January of that year. McGovern suggested that “every man, woman, and child receive from the federal government an annual payment, ” a payment which would “not vary in accordance with the wealth of the recipient” nor be contingent on the family unit. In contrast to Nixon, McGovern believed payments should be made to individuals and childless couples.

Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.), the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, supported guaranteed income proposals on the campaign trail.

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