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  • The Incremental Revolution:Ronald Reagan and Welfare Reform in the 1970s
  • William Crafton (bio)

While campaigning for the governorship of California in 1966, Ronald Reagan attempted to amuse an audience by relating a fictitious encounter between a welfare recipient and her caseworker:

A welfare recipient approaches her caseworker and says, "I need an emergency supplement to my grant this month. I have a new baby who has no place to sleep and I need the supplement to get a new crib."

"Oh, my goodness," replied the caseworker. "I'll get you the grant right away. But tell me, where is the baby sleeping now?"

The recipient responded, "He's sleeping in the box the color television came in."1

Seeking the Republican presidential nomination a decade later in 1976, Reagan recounted the story of a "welfare queen" from Chicago. He noted that despite the "welfare workers who tried to hush the story up," the recipient "used 127 names, posed as mother of 14 children at one time, 7 at another, signed up twice with the same case worker in 4 days and once while on welfare, passes as an open heart surgeon complete with office." He clinched the story by noting, "She has 3 new cars, a full length mink coat, and her take is estimated at a million dollars!"2 Sounding dated and trite, these stories reflect how Ronald Reagan's philosophy is popularly remembered regarding welfare policy: the man who joked that America had fought a war on poverty and that poverty won, and whose administration infamously attempted to classify ketchup as a vegetable as part of its effort to curb school lunch expenditures. [End Page 27]

While Reagan can be faulted for promoting negative stereotypes of the poor, he also developed a rather consistent and nuanced position on welfare that is reflected in his welfare policies as governor of California and as president. In the 1970s, both the Nixon and Carter administrations made welfare reform a cornerstone of their domestic policy agendas, seeking to comprehensively replace the welfare system with a negative income tax (NIT). Developed in part by the economist Milton Friedman, the NIT would pro-vide a guaranteed annual income for families whose income dropped below a predetermined level in the form of "negative taxes." The concept, as proposed in the Nixon and Carter proposals, was radical in that it would replace federal welfare programs, initially intended to provide support to mothers with dependent children, with a guaranteed annual income to two-parent families. Furthermore, policymakers believed the NIT would result in greater efficiency and administrative savings by replacing federal welfare programs with one program.3

During this period, Reagan spoke in direct opposition to the decade-long pursuit of the NIT both as governor of California and as a private citizen. Reagan believed that the provision of a guaranteed income would encourage dependency on welfare and increase the financial burden on states and the federal government.4 While Nixon sought the passage of an NIT on the national stage, Reagan secured the passage of the California Welfare Reform Act (CWRA) as governor in 1971. CWRA, instead of providing a guaranteed income, attempted to limit the growth of welfare and to promote work, in effect establishing Reagan as a chief opponent of the guaranteed annual income proposals.

Drawing upon his gubernatorial and presidential papers, I will examine Reagan's opposition to the Nixon and Carter administration's welfare reform proposals and his passage of the CWRA, which have received little attention from scholars. The essay will show that the changes embodied in the CWRA and Reagan's articulation of a conservative counterargument to the NIT had a long-lasting effect on welfare. This period provided Reagan the opportunity to develop a set of incremental welfare policies as governor, such as restricting eligibility and the creation of welfare-to-work programs, which he would later pursue as president and would ultimately influence welfare reform during the Clinton administration. Further, I will show that, in the face of the push for income guarantees and expansion of aid to two-parent families, Reagan's policies ultimately represented a fundamental questioning of the entitlement [End Page 28] nature of...


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