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  • “The Sparrows and the Horses”:Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Family Assistance Plan, and the Liberal Critique of Government Workers, 1955–1977
  • Joseph E. Hower (bio)

On Easter weekend 1969, President Richard Nixon summoned his senior domestic policy advisers to Key Biscayne, Florida. Nearly three months after the much-ballyhooed creation of the Council for Urban Affairs (CUA), the administration had little to show in the way of a domestic agenda. As editorial boards and columnists bemoaned the extended “time of analysis” that had followed Nixon’s 1968 victory, half a dozen senior aides shuffled through briefs, rehearsing familiar arguments, lamenting the bleaker-than-expected budget projections, and seeking consensus during a two-hour meeting that Press Secretary Ron Ziegler announced would span the “whole area of domestic thinking.”1

The foremost issue was welfare reform. For months, Nixon’s aides had squabbled over a loosely formed but far-reaching proposal to radically alter the nation’s welfare system. Crafted by staffers in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) and championed by senior domestic policy adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Family Assistance Plan proposed [End Page 256] replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with a qualified guaranteed annual income.2 Critics within the administration, led by economic adviser Arthur Burns, warned that the proposal would add millions to relief rolls, threaten the traditional work ethic, and vastly expand the federal government’s role in welfare. Moynihan countered that the existing welfare system destroyed family life, discouraged wage work, and ignored the plight of the working poor. Yet at the end of the exchange, Nixon was left with a single concern: “The president asked me, ‘Will FSS get rid of social workers?’” Moynihan later recalled to fellow staffer John Price. “I promised him it would wipe them out!”3

Twice passed by the House of Representatives only to stall in the Senate Finance Committee, Nixon’s welfare reform proposal has attracted more attention than any other failed initiative in the history of American social policy.4 The most ambitious effort to expand the federal welfare state since the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, the Family Assistance Plan seemed the fullest expression of what historian Robert Self has called “breadwinner liberalism.”5 It guaranteed a family of four an annual income of $1,600, allowed them to keep an additional $720 without penalty, and retain half of all additional income up to a limit of $3,920. It was, as Jill Quadagno memorably put it, a “seemingly illogical response” to the welfare crisis: meeting growing welfare rolls and rising costs with a plan that would add ten million new recipients and billions in additional expenditures to an already embattled system.6 That such a proposal came from Nixon confounded contemporaries and divided historians—the latter split between couching the proposal as a sincere experiment in reformist policymaking or a cynical ploy to usher in a new Republican majority.7

Yet Nixon’s welfare reform takes on a new meaning when placed in the longer trajectory of Moynihan’s career. While both contemporaries and scholars have accurately gauged Moynihan’s critical role in spearheading the program, his motivations have been left underexplored and thus misunderstood.8 Often cast simply in terms of his well-chronicled concern with questions of race and family, Moynihan’s support for FAP was also the logical culmination of a much longer intellectual process in which the self-identified New Deal liberal came to seriously question the premises of postwar social policy.9 By examining the proposal in this context, this article helps explain how a seemingly progressive policy emerged out of an apparently conservative administration and, in so doing, clarifies broader changes in the landscape of postwar American politics. [End Page 257]

More than just an opportunistic appeal to Nixon’s innate distrust of bureaucracy, Moynihan’s promise that FAP would “wipe out welfare workers” exemplified a key goal of both the program and the broader income strategy. Appearing before a skeptical group of cabinet officers and White House staff three weeks after the Florida meeting, Moynihan denounced Great Society liberalism as “feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses”—funneling tax dollars...


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pp. 256-289
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