Guaranteed Income: Chronicle of a Political Death Foretold

That is the title of my latest scholarly essay, which will be published in a special issue of The Chapman Law Review this spring. Below is an excerpt from the prologue of my paper (footnotes are below the fold):

“This symposium issue of the Chapman Law Review is devoted to various landmark laws enacted by the 91st Congress …. This Article, by contrast, will explore what could have been: “The Family Assistance Act of 1970” (H.R. 16311). Had this historic bill been enacted into law, it would have authorized a negative income tax, thus providing a minimum guaranteed income to all poor families with children.[a] In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ‘Family Assistance was income redistribution, and by any previous standards it was massive.’[b] Although it passed the House by a wide margin, and although there were sufficient votes to clear the Senate, the guaranteed income bill never made it to the floor of that august body.[c]

“Given that the 91st Congress enacted so many historic laws, why did H.R. 16311 end in failure? The history of the Family Assistance Act has received a great deal of scholarly attention. Previous studies have surveyed the legislative history of the guaranteed income bill,[d] scrutinized the economics of the bill,[e] dissected liberal and conservative opposition to the bill,[f] and emphasized the spillover effects of the Vietnam conflict on the bill.[g] This Article, by contrast, will narrate the fate of H.R. 16311 in the form of a three-act legislative morality play. To this end, this Article is structured as follows:

“Act I will introduce the hero of our story, the idea of a guaranteed income via a negative income tax and retrace the intellectual origins of this idea. Next, Act II will spotlight the shrewd tactics of the second-most powerful man in Washington, D.C., Representative Wilbur D. Mills, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who skillfully shepherded the guaranteed income bill through the House of Representatives. Last, Act III will introduce the lead villain of our story, Senator Russell D. Long, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. I make no apologies about casting Senator Long as the villain. This pro-segregation Dixiecrat, who once referred to welfare mothers as ‘Brood Mares,’[h] used his position of power to thwart the bill at every turn. A brief epilogue concludes.

“Although the hero of our story is an idea, not a person, its fate will be no less dramatic than that of a traditional flesh-and-bones protagonist. Back in 1970, many social liberals and welfare advocates complained that the bill’s proposed annual stipend was too low,[i] while at the same time many fiscal conservatives and so-called Dixiecrats (Southern Democrats) argued that the plan was too costly. Moreover, how can a guaranteed income bill help the poor without distorting work incentives or increasing taxes on everyone else? These are, of course, mutually incompatible goals. Hence, with apologies to the late Latin American author Gabriel García Márquez, the title of this legislative play.[j]

I will post additional excerpts from this paper later this week.

Image result for guaranteed income

Yeah, but who pays?

[a]  Vincent J. Burke & Vee Burke, Nixon’s Good Deed: Welfare Reform 108–09 (1974). This book was the brainchild of Vince Burke, the urban affairs and social welfare reporter for the Los Angeles Times. See id. at xv. His wife Vee completed the book after Vince died of cancer in 1973. See id. at xvi.

[b]  Daniel P. Moynihan, The Politics of a Guaranteed Income 385 (1973).

[c]  For a comprehensive legislative history of H.R. 16311, see Congressional Quarterly, Welfare Reform: Disappointment for the Administration, in 1970 Congressional Quarterly Almanac 1030 (1970).

[d]  See generally M. Kenneth Bowler, The Nixon Guaranteed Income Proposal: Substance and Process in Policy Change 6 (1974); Leland G. Neuberg, Emergence and Defeat of Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP) (U.S. Basic Income Guarantee, Working Paper No. 66, 2004).

[e]  See D. Lee Bawden, Glen G. Cain & Leonard J. Hausman, The Family Assistance Plan: An Analysis and Evaluation, 19 Pub. Pol’y 323, 352–53 (1971); see also Aaron Wildavsky & Bill Cavala, The Political Feasibility of Income by Right, 18 Pub. Pol’y 321 (1970), reprinted in Aaron Wildavsky, The Revolt Against the Masses 71–100 (2003).

[f]  See Burke & Burke, op cit., at p. 106; see also Moynihan, op cit., at p. 384–85.

[g]  See Felicia Kornbluh, Who Shot FAP? The Nixon Welfare Plan and the Transformation of American Politics, 1 Sixties: J. Hist., Pol. & Culture 125, 125 (2008).

[h]  See 114 Cong. Rec. 10,543 (1968) (remarks by Hon. Walter F. Mondale); see also Moynihan, supra note 7, at 518–19. For a more forgiving, or nuanced, view of Senator Russell’s racist perspectives, see Michael S. Martin, Russell Long: A Life in Politics 115–16 (2014).

[i] The bill’s proposed annual stipend for a family of four was $1,600, or about $10,000 in 2020 dollars. See infra text accompanying notes 29-30.

[j]  Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Gregory Rabassa trans., First Vintage International ed. 2003). “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1982 was awarded to Gabriel García Márquez ‘for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts.’” The Nobel Prize in Literature 1982, nobel prize, [] (last visited Oct. 28, 2019). Unlike the great García Márquez, however, I will tell the story of the Family Assistance Act in a linear fashion.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s