Loss of support for guaranteed income reflects radical shift in values
April 24, 2013 — Imagine this headline: “House of Representatives approves proposal for guaranteed annual income by wide margin.” The passage of that kind of social welfare measure sounds wholly implausible today, but, in fact, the House did pass such a bill in April of 1970 by a vote of 243 to 155. The measure, The New York Times reported, “establishes for the first time the principle that the Government should guarantee every family a minimum annual income.”
The story did not ultimately have a happy ending for advocates of guaranteed annual income (“GAI”) — the bill died in the Senate. But the fact that it received serious support and consideration in mainstream political circles is a testament to how radically the bounds of political debate have shifted since that time, and raises several crucial questions:
What allowed for GAI to be considered seriously by both Republicans and Democrats in the late-1960s and early 1970s? Why would the chances for a GAI proposal be so bleak today? And why are the answers to those questions critical to the outcome of virtually every other domestic public policy issue that exists today?
In the course of weeks of reporting — both through interviews and an exploration of the documentary record — Remapping Debate found that GAI proposals were given room to breathe in a social and political environment that took seriously the values of citizenship and mutual obligation, and that accepted the fact that social problems could be — indeed, should be — solved by governments.
That environment has disappeared, due in large measure, we found, to the rise of “market thinking,” a mindset that subordinated — and, in some respects, supplanted altogether — the values of citizenship and mutual obligation.
On both sides of the aisle, the voices describing unfettered market relations as a virtuous and unstoppable force to which the citizenry had to adapt and submit (as with globalization) grew ever louder. Ultimately, these market devotees drowned out those who continued to believe that government has a vital role to play and that markets do not on their own reflect and honor a broad range of important social values.
The first part of this article examines the flowering of GAI proposals and the environment within which that process occurred. Jump to that history. This second part consists of a detailed exploration of the changes in dominant values that have effectively foreclosed not only the GAI, but other measures premised on the idea that Americans have a duty to care for one another.
The erosion of mutual obligation
Though each of the various groups and individuals who supported guaranteed annual income (GAI) proposals in the 1960s and 1970s had a different justification for doing so, at the most basic level the proposals were all rooted in a sense that the broader society had a duty to eradicate poverty.
That mindset — shared by both liberals and conservatives — is apparent in President Richard Nixon’s first inaugural speech in 1969. “Until he has been part of a cause larger than himself, no man is truly whole,” Nixon said. “To go forward at all is to go forward together.”
Advocates of a GAI made frequent appeals to this sense of solidarity and mutual obligation. In 1970, for example, Senator Charles Goodell (R-N.Y.), in proposing a more generous alternative to Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, promised “to fight to ensure that never again will Americans go hungry because their country has refused to treat them as its own.”
“This decade, this year, this session of Congress is the time to decide whether we can in conscience allow children to wear rags in a land of riches,” Goodell said. “This is the time to affirm in action, not recite in rhetoric, that it is indeed our sacred duty to be our brother’s keeper.”
But since the 1970s “there has been an unraveling of obligations in every sphere,” said Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of “Age of Fracture,” which chronicles the shifts that occurred in American ideas in the 1970s and 1980s. “That assumption that society has social obligations to its members is basically gone.”
The shift in ideologies can be seen in the stark difference between the rhetoric Nixon used in his inauguration speech and that which Ronald Reagan deployed nearly 20 years later. In a message to Congress titled “A Union of Individuals,” Reagan articulated his vision of the replacement of social responsibility with individual responsibility, “a vision of a free and self-reliant people, taking responsibility for its own welfare and progress through such time-tested means as individual initiative, neighborhood and community cooperation, and local and State self-government.”
“The return of responsibility and authority to the individual American is now leading to a virtual renaissance in America of liberty, productivity, prosperity, and self-esteem,” Reagan asserted.
Rodgers attributed the shift from social to individual obligation, in part, to a broader fragmentation of social identity. Americans, he said, used to feel more rooted in the wider groups and communities to which they belonged than they do today.