Among the measures agreed to by the U.S. Senate as part of a $2 trillion package designed to stem the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic — what would be the largest economic stimulus legislation in modern U.S. history — is an idea that has a surprising history in American politics: one-time direct payments to taxpayers.
The idea of sending money directly to Americans to help tide them over in a crisis isn’t new. In recent decades alone, the U.S. government has issued similar checks during recessions in 2001, 2008 and 2009. However, 2020’s so-called “recovery rebates” have attracted extra attention, as they come on the heels of a national conversation about guaranteed income policies, sparked by the entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s now-defunct campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Yang was perhaps best known for his campaign promise of a Freedom Dividend, a monthly $1,000 check to Americans over 18 years old.
“My goal has always been to eradicate and alleviate all of the unnecessary poverty and deprivation in this country,” Yang told TIME as discussion of the stimulus package began. “If I can play a part in that happening, oh, I’ll be a very happy man.”
Yang’s campaign website quoted a perhaps unexpected source as historical precedent for the idea: President Richard Nixon. While there are important differences between Nixon’s idea and the “recovery rebate” checks many Americans are now set to receive — most obviously that the former would have been a recurring payment and the latter is a one-time thing — the history reveals an important insight into the politics of government assistance for Americans, argues Brian Steensland, author of The Failed Welfare Revolution: America’s Struggle over Guaranteed Income Policy.
In an Aug. 8, 1969, nationwide broadcast, Nixon unveiled what he called a Family Assistance Plan. “What I am proposing,” he said, “is that the Federal Government build a foundation under the income of every American family with dependent children that cannot care for itself.”
For Nixon, the need to act came out of the wave of violence in cities nationwide following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. The stakes for attempting to address poverty and inequality had rarely been higher. The first important connection between that moment and today, says Steensland, is that sense of urgency.
“The crisis now and the crisis then are different in kind,” he says, “but the pervasive sense there is a crisis and something needs to be done is similar to how things felt in early 1969.”
Under Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, a family of four would receive $1,600 a year, and an extra $300 per additional family member. The allowance would decrease as the family’s income increased, and the subsidy would be capped at $3,920. (Adjusted for inflation, $1,600 in mid-1969 is worth over $11,000 today; the one-time rebate in the coronavirus stimulus package provides for up to $1,200 per individual adult.)
“The President proposed the first fundamental overhaul of the U.S. welfare system since it was created 34 years ago,” TIME reported in its cover story on the news. “Although Nixon pointedly denied it, the notion is very much like a guaranteed income — with one crucial difference. For the able-bodied, willingness to accept ‘suitable’ employment or vocational training would be the quid for the quo of assistance. In essence, Nixon notified the nation that his Administration is prepared to help those of the nation’s 9.7 million relief recipients who try to help themselves.”
Though some polls back then showed about 65% of the public supported the plan, it also drew criticism from politicians on both sides of the aisle. Some liberals and the National Welfare Rights Organization thought the benefits were “stingy” and objected to the work requirements, while conservatives thought it was too costly and “a giveaway,” according to Steensland.
While the Family Assistance Plan passed the House twice in 1970 and 1971, it hit a block with Senate Finance Committee chair Russell Long and socially conservative Southern Democrats who “were very concerned that if Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan passed, it would shift the power dynamics of the South,” Steensland says.
As a result, the Family Assistance Plan did not make it into the social policy legislation that Nixon finally signed into law in October 1972. (A similar idea was also proposed by Democrat George McGovern in his 1972 run for the White House — a $1,000 “Demogrant” for every American — but McGovern was unsuccessful too.) Two milestone social policies can, however, be traced back to the discussions it sparked: Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a monthly check for elderly and disabled Americans, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, meant to get working recipients closer to a living wage.
In the idea’s failure, Steensland says, is another key takeaway from the history: even at moments of dire financial strain, it has proved difficult to separate economic reasons for giving funds to taxpayers from political questions about who wants to give money to whom.
“[In terms of] what makes these kinds of plans politically palatable to people and politicians, the issue of worthiness is the key one,” argues Steensland. “The economic casualties of the global pandemic are seen as victims of circumstance beyond their control in the same way that the recipients of SSI benefits were seen as victims of circumstance outside their control.” Likewise, he points out, policies framed as “relief” have had better luck than those framed as “welfare,” even when they would deliver the thing in practice. He also thinks that Republican presidents have an easier time pushing through this kind of policy given Democrats are vulnerable to being called “socialist” or accused of supporting “freeloaders.”
Between the Nixon Administration and now, most discussion of and experimentation with guaranteed income has taken place been abroad, notably in Finland — though there have been experiments in California, in Stockton and Oakland. But, Steensland believes, all that history may be laying the groundwork for the future.
“It’s in the policymaking DNA,” he says, “so looking forward, proponents for something like ‘universal basic income’ will be able to point to this and say when times were tough, when things happened that were outside people’s control, the government understood its responsibility to citizens and helped them when they needed it, and it’s time for us to do this again in a more sustained way.”
Correction, March 26
The original version of this story misstated when the Family Assistance Plan passed the House. It was in 1970 and 1971, not twice in 1971.