To understand how small programs get big, it’s helpful to start with the curious case of civil war pensions.
Between 1861 and 1865, over 2.2 million men served in the Union army and navy, including about 37 percent of the male population of combat age in the north. Of that number, over 360,000 men died from either their wounds or illness, while over 280,000 veterans suffered combat injuries.
Although the Lincoln administration eventually resorted to conscription to maintain requisite troop levels, the Union’s military efforts relied largely on volunteers, and these volunteers needed the assurance that they and their families would be cared for in the event of death or injury. To meet this need, the Republican-controlled Congress passed a law in 1862 introducing pensions for widows and soldiers and sailors who suffered disabilities “as a direct result of … illness contracted while serving in the military.”
Initially, the program only covered a small number of veterans and their families. At the end of the war, fewer than 2 percent of the Union’s 1.8 million living veterans were on benefits, while only 25 percent of eligible widows were on pensions.
The numbers were small in part because some widows and veterans were initially reluctant to take advantage of the benefits they were entitled to. But the original design of the program was always limited. Only veterans unable to do manual labor due to wartime injuries were eligible. Even 15 years after the end of the war, only 8.6 percent of the former soldiers and sailors had applied for a pension.
Then something changed. In 1879, Congress passed the Arrears Act, which allowed veterans who had never received benefits to file new claims and reclaim pension payments. A former soldier was actually able to discover disabilities related to military service many years later. Congress expanded the program again in 1890 with the Dependent Pension Act, which allowed all Civil War veterans with 90 days of honorable service to receive pensions if they were unable to do manual labor, regardless of whether their disability was due to the war. In fact, the program turned into old-age insurance for Union soldiers and sailors.
By 1900 nearly three-quarters of the Union’s veterans were on a regular pension. That percentage grew to 93.48 percent in 1915, although only about 400,000 veterans were still alive.
At the turn of the century, pensions from the civil war made up over 40 percent of federal government spending.
So how do you explain the expansion of the program from a targeted benefit for widows and disabled soldiers to a near-universal social safety net for all veterans? The best answer is politics. Veterans organizations, especially the Grand Army of the Republic and its federal affiliates, formed a powerful lobby that pushed for more generous and inclusive services. At the same time, increased electoral competition in the north encouraged Democratic and Republican candidates for federal office to support an expanded safety net.
It is a testament to the staying power of the program that if Irene triplet, the daughter of a Union veteran, died in 2020, still receiving a monthly payment of $ 73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs. She was the final beneficiary of the program.
During the 20th century it was the same pattern has largely persisted.
When it was founded in 1936, social security met vocal conservative opposition. The program also excluded people who worked in the household, in hotels and laundries, in agriculture, or in community service. These omissions were a deliberate concession to the Southern Democrats in Congress, who rightly feared that the ties of economic dependency that served as the backbone of the Jim Crow economy might loosen if poor black residents had access to the state welfare system. But in the 1950s the opposition faded. Social security was so popular that Democrats and moderate Republicans plugged holes in the program and made these workers eligible. In the following decades the benefits became more generous.
The same was true of Medicare and Medicaid, twin initiatives that conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater once called “socialized medicine.” Medicare was originally intended to offer limited hospital and voluntary health insurance, while Medicaid was supposed to cover a presumably small number of very poor people who were permanently excluded from work (and thus from employer-based health insurance) – namely, widows and disabled people. Fast forward to 2021. Both programs have become practically unassailable. Not only that, Medicare coverage has expanded dramatically since 1965 and now includes prescription drug insurance – a provision added under Republican President George W. Bush. Together, Medicare and Medicaid cover 141 million Americans – approximately 43 percent of the country’s total population. Medicaid coverage has also grown much more extensive under the terms of the Affordable Care Act.
Or take the example of nutritional aid. The Food Stamp program (now called SNAP), which was designed under the Kennedy administration to help a small number of very poor families maintain food security, was originally very controversial. Grocery stamps were almost cashless and turned traditional patterns of social and economic reverence upside down, particularly in the South, generating opposition from conservative Democrats and Republicans despite their limited reach. Even after the Johnson administration expanded the program, it only included about 500,000 people in 1965. But the program lived on and grew under Republican and Democratic presidents alike – from 22.5 million beneficiaries in 1970 to 40 million in 2019. The same goes for free or subsidized school meals (a product of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966), whose enrollments grew from 22.5 million in 1970 to 29.4 million in 2019.
To be sure, there are examples of safety net programs that do did reduce or die – especially Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), a controversial Great Society initiative that aims to give cash to a small portion of single-parent poor families. Given the eligibility structure of the program, the number of AFDC lists grew along with the number of single-parent families in need. After decades of conservative opposition to the performance and amid widespread public disapproval, President Bill Clinton and the Republican-led Congress dissolved AFDC in 1996, replacing it with a more restrictive and temporary monetary benefit.
But AFDC is the exception that proves the rule. Once in place – and even when limited in their original design – safety net programs tend to go beyond their original target audience, and resistance to them tends to wane as the public becomes more accustomed to their place in the country’s political economy.
The story is not decisive. It’s just a guide. Today’s political landscape differs significantly from that of earlier eras. It’s tribal and polarized. One of the two big parties has a shaky relationship with democratic norms and principles. There is no telling how the Build Back Better programs – should they ever come to fruition – could fare in such an environment.
But for over 150 years history has been remarkably consistent on one point. Once in place, welfare programs are persistently difficult to eradicate. Instead, they tend to grow in size and popularity. This wisdom should be kept in mind as the Democrats make their last move in their quest to get the President’s agenda off the ground.