Greater Welfare

Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan and the contemporary debate over Universal Basic Incomes

by David Golden

published November 10, 2017

Since the Great Recession, proposals for a radical transformation of the American welfare state have appeared in think-tank proposals and newspapers op-ed pages from such ideologically diverse publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Jacobin, and the Nation. These proposals advocate replacing, or augmenting, the current welfare state by sending a check to every American regardless of income, employment, or disability status. Usually called a Universal Basic Income (UBI), these potential policies are sold as a panacea for complex problems such as increasing joblessness created by automation, the inefficiency of the current patchwork welfare state, and poverty. Despite the shared language and mechanisms of UBIs, analyzing them as a group obscures their radically different effects on work and family life. In deciding what type of work and lifestyles are valuable, UBIs define citizenship.

The definition of ‘citizenship’ employed here is not the narrow definition of who is a legal member of a nation-state. Rather, it is citizenship in the more expansive sense of defining the beneficiaries of social rights all should be entitled to. This includes the services and standards of living which everyone has an intrinsic claim to as people or, in a narrower sense, as Americans; they do not have to be earned. Free K–12 education offers a contemporary example: it is seen as the right of all Americans and is not generally considered welfare or a “handout.” The debate over K–12 education is largely settled (notwithstanding proposals by charter and privatization advocates, which take issue with the delivery mechanism of schooling, and not its provision), but UBIs seek to redefine social rights in contested domains such as payment for household labor and the necessity of work.

Historically, UBI programs like Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP) have been unable to build a coalition to support their vision of citizenship. The FAP’s attempts to maintain hierarchical and stereotypical roles for women and its potential to end the exploitation of people of color in agriculture and other low-wage industries engendered a backlash from both sides of the ideological spectrum. The FAP demonstrates that contemporary political discussions about the welfare state are contested on the basis of foundational questions about citizenship—including many of the same questions that precluded the FAP’s passage. Progressive attempts to redefine the welfare state, with or without UBI’s, must articulate a vision of citizenship which moves beyond its current white, male normative idealization in order to succeed as radical reform.

On August 8, 1969, President Richard Nixon, in an address to the nation, outlined a radical new welfare proposal designed to “build a foundation under the income of every American family with dependent children.” As the name implied, the Family Assistance Plan would send checks to families rather than individual citizens. The proposal was typically outlined by its proponents in terms of a family of four, which would receive a guaranteed annual income of $1,600 regardless of the work-status of any members. The FAP was designed so beneficiaries would never be harmed by working and earning wages—the program’s benefits would be slowly-phased out as its beneficiaries’ incomes increased rather than immediately retracted with greater earnings. This was intended to incentivize work; the FAP included a weak work requirement, as it only affected men and had limited enforcement mechanisms. This weakness was concomitant with the gender hierarchy assumptions of the FAP. If women were not intended to enter the workforce, then the welfare state would need to continue fulfilling the role of providing for non-wage-earning women caretakers and children.  


The FAP represented an attempt by Nixon and his team to reinforce a gendered model of citizenship that defined men as breadwinners and women as dependent caretakers. To understand Nixon’s proposal of the FAP and its eventual failure, historian Susan Pedersen, as laid out in her book Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State, viewed the development of welfare states in a theoretical framework integrating both “the structure of the labor market… [and] the patterns of family life, whether actual or ideal,” which policies “assumed and attempted to reinforce.” When Nixon proposed the FAP, the public associated welfare with means-tested programs for non-workers—mainly Aid to Families with Dependent Children (ADFC), which paid widows, single mothers, and other women who cared for children but who had no male supporter. The AFDC, which was passed as part of the New Deal, directly replaced the support of a male “breadwinner” with state support in order to allow women to fulfill the role of caretakers. New Deal social insurance programs, like Social Security and Veteran’s benefits, which did not have an income or means-test, nearly exclusively applied to men and were not popularly associated with welfare. As Pedersen argues, this gendered division of welfare provision reflected a society which placed women “definitionally outside of citizenship” by creating two paths to citizenship—work and military service—neither of which were available to women. Women are rendered dependent members of society who gain rights in their relation to men, as wives or mothers, but not as individuals. The FAP can thus be described as a reconfiguration of AFDC that actively reinforced, rather than merely recognizing, male worker citizenship and female dependence.  

Nixon’s motivation and rhetoric in proposing and advocating for the FAP demonstrates that reinforcing and supporting this gendered view of citizenship was his goal, rather than solving the AFDC’s growing fiscal crisis. As Marissa Chappell calculates in her book The War on Welfare, the FAP would include 13 million new individuals at a cost of four billion dollars. It did not constitute a response to welfare’s fiscal crisis as generally understood. However, Nixon and his advisors argued the FAP would shrink welfare costs over time by encouraging the formation of stable families with male breadwinners—especially Black families. In this sense, the FAP was part of Nixon’s response to the race riots, which he believed were the result of pathological Black family structures. Nixon failed to serve this group because his administration focused more on the racist pathologizing of Black people than fixing the underlying concerns of lack of economic opportunity and discrimination. This demonstrates his identification of the AFDC’s supposed structural incentives for fathers to abandon their families as caused by ‘the welfare crisis’ rather than fiscal issues. Welfare reform, then and now, necessitates a debate over the structure of society—one which Nixon responded to by doubling-down on traditional gender hierarchies.

Under the FAP, despite Nixon’s “workfare rhetoric,” women would not be supported in entering the labor force. Married women were exempt from work requirements—an assistant secretary of labor for the Nixon administration argued that in a “normal family” the mother does not work. The FAP provided few resources for job training and re-placement for women and childcare provisions were underfunded and poorly planned. The lack of a comprehensive childcare system, which would free mothers to work, was sold by the OEO director as a money-saving technique. This reflects what feminist welfare theorist Carol Pateman describes as “praise for loving care within families… [as] an attempt to obtain…unpaid welfare from (house)wives.” The FAP used women’s unpaid home labor to reduce costs and reinforce women’s role as caretakers, and arguably to move women away from jobs pathologized as ‘masculine.’ The FAP was explicitly designed to reinforce female dependence on men. It punished single mothers by reducing their benefits, thereby encouraging them to get (or stay) married. A gendered vision of normative citizenship would be subsidized and reinforced by the government. Today’s UBI proposals, as well as arguments over tax benefits, government childcare, and paid leave, reflect the sway this gendered view of citizenship still holds over many lawmakers and Americans as well as the massive gap between more feminist and anti-racist visions of citizenship and the status quo. 


The FAP failed due to widespread disagreement about promoting and enforcing its version of citizenship. Southern Democrats heavily opposed the FAP because their definition of citizenship included the right for white citizens to exploit black labor for cheap goods and services. As Georgia Representative Phillip Landrum said, “there’s not going to be anybody left to roll these wheelbarrows and press these shirts [if the FAP is passed].” A core of anti-welfare, free market conservatives and business leaders also opposed the FAP, despite supporting traditional gender roles, because they believed that the breadwinner/homemaker dynamic was a privilege of the hard work and moral behavior which they strove to protect. The FAP undermined the exclusivity of this entrenched form of gendered oppression by subsidizing and extending it to those who were deemed immoral and who were thought not to have “earned” it—a group that free-market conservatives defined as Black.

There was also immense pressure on the left against the FAP, especially in the milieu of newly strengthened welfare rights activists and an emerging feminist coalition in the early 1970s. The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), led by and mostly composed of Black women, organized welfare recipients to demand the rights they were legally entitled to and to ensure that the voice of those most affected by welfare reform would be heard in the legislative process. As Chappell writes, The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) emphasized motherhood as a service, claiming mothers were “employed” by the government to raise “strong, healthy, active, productive, responsible citizens.” The NWRO sought to define women as active and independent citizens who fulfilled the critical duty of raising the next generation. The NWRO argued women deserved a meaningful choice between traditional work and raising their children—both of which were valuable and should be remunerated. A different feminist critique emerged from the National Organization of Women (NOW) and others who wished to accomplish full economic independence for women through full employment, antidiscrimination, and a large guaranteed income. In essence, NOW articulated a vision of a society in which there were no ‘proper’ roles for men and women. The distance between these two feminist-oriented visions of welfare reform points to contemporary difficulties in articulating and reaching agreement on a more expansive definition of citizenship—even among those who seek radical, progressive change.


During periods of intense economic strife, policymakers turn to UBIs as radical solutions to radical problems. Yet, both then and now, exact policy prescriptions differ greatly as they promote radically different ideas of citizenship. Although often sold as a progressive idea, UBIs can just as easily be a reactionary tool intended to reinforce prevailing gender hierarchies, as Nixon’s FAP evidences. Conservative UBI proposals promote the idea that the path to full citizenship is gainful employment. By failing to provide a job guarantee as well, conservative UBIs reinforce the failure to work as a personal moral failure while ignoring structural conditions that prevent many from getting a job or being paid enough to make working financially sustainable. Moreover, the focus on inflexible, traditional work reinforces a male-dominated conception of work and fails to recognize the value of household and domestic labor typically coded as female. Much like the FAP, conservative UBIs are radical programs in service of reactionary, conservative ends.

For UBI proponents on the left, making work optional is the reason why they enthusiastically support UBIs. The most radical UBI proposals, just as it was in the ’70s, come from the feminists on the left. In her New York Times article “It’s Payback Time for Women,” Judith Shulevitz calls for a UBI to “reimburse mothers and other caregivers” for their free labor. Echoing the NWRO, which claimed mothers should be treated as employees of the state tasked with raising the next generation, Shulevitz argues it is “time for something like reparations” for the “reproductive labor” mothers provide. She takes this argument further by making an argument for a UBI for all citizens, regardless of whether they have children, as a chance to move society towards gender-neutrality. Criticizing feminists who focus only on the workplace, she argues that even if a UBI leads women to leave the workforce, it will create a society in which people do not have to “conform to traditionally male patterns of employment.” Shulevitz is calling for reconstituting citizenship to recognize the value of unpaid caretaker labor. Further, she wants to separate caretaking labor from its female-gendered role assumptions by offering a universal payment which will encourage men and women equally to become the primary caregiver. Leftist UBI proposals are united in recognizing unpaid, caring labor as just as valuable as paid work. 

The FAP’s failure yields lessons for articulating a broader vision of citizenship and the potential pitfalls of radical reform. The debate between the mainly Black National Welfare Rights Organization and the mainly white National Organization of Women provides a microcosm of the debate among progressives on citizenship. NOW, by arguing for the end of distinctions between men and women without proposing remuneration for work generally done by women such as household labor, might fail to fully challenge the normativity of a white, male ideal of citizenship. While these ideas provide a basis for an extension of workforce rights to women, this model promotes other inequities. As demonstrated by the Southern Democrats who opposed the FAP on grounds that it removed their access to cheap Black labor, that ideal of citizenship rests on a standard of living provided by exploitation of Black wage-labor and unpaid female labor. The NWRO, by including in its propsals a revaluation of labor historically coded as feminine, might provide much richer ground for contemporary progressives to follow in articulating a new ideal of citizenship with a view towards moving beyond already-existing social structures. 

Yet, the NWRO focused on expanding utilization of current welfare programs and maintaining the benefits of the system as it was (mainly opposing the addition of work requirements that would prevent women from working primarily as caretakers). Despite their articulation of a radical vision, the NWRO’s focus on making practical and meaningful differences in the lives of their members as soon as possible demonstrates an admirable practicality that contemporary welfare reformers should draw from as well. Robert Greenstein, of the Center for Budget Priorities and Policies, has been one of the main proponents and analysts of policies meant to help low-income people. He warns of the dangers of adopting UBIs which would replace better-targeted programs as well as those which provide in-kind benefits that a cash transfer cannot easily replace (such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Contemporary advocates should seek as an end-goal a vision of citizenship informed by the type of radical thinking promoted by the NWRO. But, they should also remember the NWRO’s practicality, and ensure that a focus on the end-goal of UBIs does not endanger programs that already provide critical assistance to those who might otherwise benefit from a more ideal welfare state.

DAVID GOLDEN B’ 19 wants to learn from the past.