To understand how small programs become large, it is useful to start with an unusual case of civil war pensions.
Between 1861 and 1865, more than 2.2 million men served in the Union Army and Navy, including about 37 percent of the male population of the Northern War Age. Of these, more than 360,000 men died from wounds or illness, and more than 280,000 veterans suffered combat injuries.
Although the Lincoln administration eventually resorted to conscription to maintain the required level of force, the Union’s military efforts relied primarily on volunteers, and these volunteers demanded assurance that they and their families would be cared for in the event of death or injury. To meet this need, Congress, under the control of the Republicans, passed legislation in 1862 to determine pensions for widows and for soldiers and sailors who suffered a disability “arising as a direct result of … military service” or “for reasons caused by can be traced directly to injuries received or illness contracted during military service. “
Initially, the program covered only a small number of veterans and their families. At the end of the war, less than 2% of the Union’s 1.8 million living veterans were collecting benefits, while only 25% of eligible widows were receiving pensions.
The numbers were small, in part because some widows and veterans initially proved unwilling to claim the benefits to which they were entitled. But the original design of the program was always limited. Only veterans who were unable to do physical work due to war injuries were eligible. Even 15 years after the end of the war, only 8.6 percent of former soldiers and sailors invested in pensions.
Then something changed. In 1879, Congress passed the Arrears of Payments Act, which allowed veterans who never collected benefits to file new claims and collect pensions back. A former soldier could actually discover disability related to military service many years after that. Congress re-expanded the program in 1890 with the Dependent Pensions Act, which allowed all Civil War veterans with a 90-day honorary service to receive a pension if they became incapable of manual labor, regardless of whether their disability was war-related. In fact, the program has been transformed into old-age insurance for Union soldiers and sailors.
By 1900, almost three-quarters of Union veterans were receiving regular pensions. That percentage rose to 93.48 percent in 1915, although only about 400,000 veterans lived there.
For the prospect, at the turn of the century, civil war pensions accounted for more than 40 percent of federal government spending.
How, then, to explain the expansion of the program, from targeted benefits for widows and the disabled to an almost universal social safety net for all veterans? The best answer is politics. Veterans ’organizations, most notably the Grand Army of the Republic and its state-level affiliates, formed a powerful lobby that demanded more generous and inclusive benefits. At the same time, increased electoral competition in the north has encouraged Democratic and Republican candidates for federal office to support an expanded security network.
This is proof of the endurance of the program to ever Irene Triplett, the daughter of a Union veteran who died in 2020, was still drawing a monthly payment of $ 73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs. She was the last beneficiary of the program.
Throughout the 20th century, the same pattern has been largely preserved.
When it was founded in 1936, social security met with loud conservative opposition. People working in the household, hotels and laundries, agriculture or local service were also excluded from the program. These omissions were a deliberate concession to the Southern Democrats in Congress, who rightly feared that if poor blacks had access to the federal social safety net, the ties of economic dependence that served as the backbone of Jim Crow’s economy could be loosened. But by the 1950s, the opposition had disappeared. Social security has proven so popular that Democrats and moderate Republicans have patched holes in the program and allowed such workers to participate. In the following decades, the benefits became more generous.
The same was true of Medicare and Medicaid, a dual initiative that conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater once described as “socialized medicine”. Medicare was originally intended to provide limited hospital insurance and voluntary health insurance, while Medicaid was designed to cover the allegedly small number of very poor people who were permanently excluded from work (and thus from employer-based health insurance). – namely widows and the disabled. Fast forward to 2021. Both programs have become virtually unattainable. Not only that, Medicare benefits have expanded greatly since 1965 and now include insurance for prescription drugs – a provision added under Republican President George W. Bush. Medicare and Medicaid together cover 141 million Americans – about 43 percent of the nation’s total population. Under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid coverage has also become much more extensive.
Or take the example of nutritional help. The food stamp program (now known as SNAP), designed under the Kennedy administration and designed to help a small number of very poor families maintain food security, was initially highly controversial. Almost a monetary benefit, food stamps have changed traditional patterns of social and economic respect, especially in the South, sparking opposition from conservative Democrats and Republicans – despite their limited reach. Even after the Johnson administration expanded the program, in 1965 it covered only about 500,000 people. Nevertheless, the program lived and grew under both the Republican and Democratic presidents – from 22.5 million beneficiaries in 1970 to 40 million in 2019. The same is true for free or subsidized school meals (a product of the 1966 Child Nutrition Act) whose enrollment is has increased. from 22.5 million in 1970 to 29.4 million in 2019.
To be sure, there are examples of safety net programs that did reduce or die – in particular assistance to families with dependent children (AFDC), a controversial Big Society initiative aimed at providing financial assistance to a small proportion of poor families run by single parents. Given the eligibility structure of the program, as the number of poor families run by single parents increased, the AFDC list also increased. After decades of conservative opposition to the favor and widespread public disapproval, in 1996, President Bill Clinton and a Republican-led Congress dismantled the AFDC and replaced it with a more restrictive and temporary monetary compensation.
But the AFDC is the exception that proves the rule. Once established – and even if limited in their original design – safety net programs tend to spread beyond their original target population, and opposition to them tends to melt as the public becomes more accustomed to their place in the country’s political economy.
History is not decisive. It’s just a guide. Today’s political landscape is markedly different from that of previous periods. It is tribal and polarized. Probably one of the two main parties now has a shaky attitude towards democratic norms and principles. It is impossible to guess how Build Back Better programs – if they ever materialized – could work in such an environment.
But for more than 150 years, history has been remarkably consistent at one point. Once established social welfare programs prove to be stubbornly difficult to eliminate. Instead, they grow in size and popularity. This wisdom must be taken into account when the Democrats round out the last part of their efforts to meet the President’s agenda.