FAP and Its Enemies

The Politics of a Guaranteed Income: The Nixon Administration and the Family Assistance Plan.
by Daniel P. Moynihan.
Random House. 579 pp. $15.00.

If a somnolent Congressman from a safe district had fallen asleep in the basement of the West Wing of the White House in October 1968 and awakened the following January to find Daniel P. Moynihan behind the desk, one thing would have been perfectly clear to him: Hubert Humphrey had won the election. Lifelong Democrat, protégé of Averell Harriman and Arthur Goldberg, architect of the first poverty program, quondam candidate for President of the New York City Council on the Democratic ticket, Moynihan could not possibly be part of a Nixon administration. But he was; and he enjoyed it, too. He knew he was one of very few certified intellectuals ever to have daily influential access to a President on questions of domestic policy, and he charged about the country on the WATS line, asking all sorts of friends and acquaintances—including me—if we had ideas the President might wish to try out. I didn't, myself; but Moynihan did, and he sold his most important idea to Richard Nixon. The Politics of a Guaranteed Income tells how the sale was made and what happened to the idea in the eighteen months that followed.

Moynihan has in great measure the prime quality of all successful Presidential advisers: he is good company. Nixon apparently has what seemed to Moynihan, as it would to most college professors, the prime quality of a successful President: he is highly intelligent. What had got Moynihan his invitation to the White House was unquestionably the fact that he had been the first to spot the trend toward black welfare dependency that became the social horror story of the Johnson and Nixon years. In early 1965, while heading the policy-planning division of the Labor Department, Moynihan had drawn the graph that compared unemployment figures with welfare rolls, and had demonstrated that the two lines were no longer moving in parallel, as they always had before. The numbers on welfare had begun to rise steadily, regardless of employment opportunities.

In a memo to Lyndon Johnson, Moynihan attempted to explain this appalling new development by correlating it with what appeared to be a breakdown in the Negro family. All the public attention went to his explanation, which was merely a first approximation, but the facts he sought to explain did not go away because reasonable doubts were thrown on his explanation; indeed, the trend lines he had uncovered became more frighteningly evident in the boom years of the late 1960's. Job training failed; community action became a nursery for infantile leftism; a disproportionate fraction of the money spent on the poverty program went to social workers and other professionals, whose utility seemed minimal; and the white working-class taxpayer grew good and sick of the whole thing.

Moynihan brought Nixon an analysis of poverty at large—not just welfare dependency—stressing the fact that most of the American poor were at work, for salaries that were simply inadequate. What was needed was a system that would benefit all poor people, not just those on welfare. This system, bluntly, would have to give people money, not “help.” It would have to be enough money to keep body and soul together, but not so much as to destroy the incentive to work. “The nation had begun a war on poverty,” Moynihan writes, describing his argument with Arthur Burns over the political viability of this strategy. “Why not win it?”


By far the best part of this book is the first 220 pages, in which Moynihan develops the argument for his Family Assistance Plan in the context of the struggle for the President's mind. He knows this subject overwhelmingly well, in depth and breadth, scholarly background and first-hand experience, European and American reference. Because he is telling a story, he can carry a large freight of information painlessly; and because his arguments were victorious he can present them without polemic, and without worry that an occasional jolt of his considerable wit will distract the acolytes. Where he is interpreting the President's views, of course, he may be wrong—on this year's evidence, there seems reason to believe that Senator Abraham Ribicoff and Richard P. Nathan, who have written about Moynihan's book in the New Republic, have grounds for their belief that Nixon took the work requirement features of FAP more seriously than Moynihan thinks he did. But while he is going up the mountain, Moynihan is continually interesting and vastly informative.

Once we get past Nixon's speech of August 9, 1969, however—given here in its full, stupefying length—the story goes downhill. Moynihan proceeds by presenting one at a time the arguments of the various groups which opposed FAP, and replying to them, also one at a time. Because the strengths of the proposal remain the same regardless of the argument Moynihan is answering, the book becomes repetitious. I have no difficulty accepting Moynihan's central position—that Nixon could have handled the conservative opposition to FAP, and it was the Left that devoured its own—but this is not a theme that can support as many minor variations as Moynihan spins out from it.

And in the end the moral is not quite as clear as Moynihan's last pages indicate. He has been accused of being soft on Nixon, but he is surely no more so than, say, Schlesinger was on Kennedy; Moynihan not only owes Nixon loyalty, he clearly likes the man. The person he is soft on is Hugh Scott, the minority leader in the Senate. After all, it was Everett Dirksen whose conversion to the cause got the most important social legislation of the Johnson administration through a recalcitrant Senate; I for one cannot believe that a Dirksen in Scott's shoes, persuaded by Nixon or Moynihan that FAP should pass, would have allowed the shambles that occurred in the Senate. But Moynihan omits Dirksen from his historical references, and mentions Scott only in passing, as the fellow in whose room Nixon's field marshals counted their votes before they were hatched.

Worse, the most effective single spokesman against FAP, as Moynihan points out with rueful admiration, was the conservative Senator John Williams of Delaware, who demonstrated that some of the numbers didn't work out right, and destroyed the viability of the detailed legislation that had been passed by the House. Regardless of how important the President considered the work requirement in FAP, everyone from the President on down (including Moynihan) was insistent on the need for a work incentive. Work incentives meant that the recipient of FAP grants who took a job would have to be able to keep a noticeable share of that money in addition to his or her wages until those wages rose past a reasonably good minimum figure.


The problem, which Moynihan lays out very clearly and fairly, was circular and unresolvable. FAP had to be set low enough ($1,600 for a family of four) to fit into a feasible federal budget and maintain a rational appetite for work. But this figure was so low that supplements (most notably, food stamps, Medicaid, and public-housing subsidies) were required to keep alive those who were stuck with nothing else. Recipients who got jobs would at designated income points lose not only portions of their FAP grants, but also their eligibility for the supplements. At these points, the “notch effects,” as Moynihan calls them, would provide strong disincentives to work. Without the supplements, no liberal support at all—Moynihan himself wouldn't have bought it. With the supplements, no conservative support at all—Moynihan himself was itchy about notches.

What Senator Williams did to FAP, as Moynihan says, was “threat analysis in worst-possible case condition.” Moreover, the notches were not the creation of FAP—they were already present in the welfare program, and FAP if anything made them less rather than more harmful. But an argument that Moynihan begins with the claim that “On balance, the statistical quality of the FAP planning was notable” has to end with the claim that over time the inherited follies of welfare could have been sloughed from a steadily improving FAP. Both claims are, I think, true; but in the move from one to the other, the case for FAP becomes something less than overpowering.


What remains completely convincing is Moynihan's thesis that FAP was a gamble the Left should have wished to take if it had really cared about the poor and especially the black poor. Some of the most interesting pages in the book express his understanding of why the Left copped out (with a few honorable exceptions, among them Edward Kennedy). In politics, Moynihan argues, “Symbolic rewards are at least as valuable as real rewards, in ways more so.” Because Nixon could not offer the symbolic rewards, his opponents shunned the real ones. So in the end, of course, they got neither.

Moynihan has too ebullient a temperament to finish his book sadder but wiser; he contents himself with a parting shot from Bertrand de Jouvenel and a comment about a “persisting habit of mind” on the Left. But the book leaves a disturbing thought. The distribution of symbolic rewards to one side and real rewards to the other is a necessary part of the logrolling that is the heart of democratic government. An instinctive understanding of this necessity was what made Robert Wagner a successful Mayor of New York; lack of that understanding has made John Lindsay a disastrous one. If the interrelations of government and media in contemporary society have really made this sort of adjustment impossible, some fundamental institutions in our country may be in even worse trouble than the chiliasts of the 60's were saying when they were so rudely interrupted.

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