The panel discussion about the welfare-reform initiatives of the Nixon era, which was held at George Washington University on Wednesday, had many useful lessons for today’s policy-makers.

The fifth Nixon Legacy Forum was co-sponsored by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library; the Richard Nixon Foundation; and GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

Tim Naftali, the Nixon Library’s director, delivered a few opening remarks and was followed by Geoff Shepard, who served on the Nixon White House’s Domestic Council. He in turn introduced Lee Huebner of GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs (and a deputy director of the White House writing staff in the Nixon era). Huebner, after pointing out that many noted historians regard the Nixon welfare-reform proposals as “the most creative domestic policy initiative since the New Deal,” introduced the four panelists.

John Price, who served as Special Assistant for Urban Affairs in the Nixon Administration, pointed out that many of the ideas involved in welfare reform came out of the work of economist Milton Friedman, as well as discussions within the Ripon Society and groups affiliated with it, especially Yale Law School’s Trumbull Society. He pointed out that there was also input from Republican governors in some of the northern states, who were concerned about how to strengthen their economies in the face of increasing numbers of people seeking welfare. Price outlined some of the differing opinions within the Administration about approaching welfare reform – for example, Daniel Moynihan favored a European-style family allowance plan. He also pointed out the important role John Ehrlichman played in mediating between the different approaches.

Paul O’Neill, who served as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Nixon White House (and who later became President George W. Bush’s first Treasury Secretary) examined the way in which the welfare reform proposals of 1969 were later incorporated into the comprehensive approach of the New Federalism which President Nixon espoused at the start of his second term.

Robert Patricelli, the Nixon Administration’s Deputy Director of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, talked about the remarkable extent to which Vice President Agnew and Cabinet members whose official duties didn’t cover welfare reform (such as Secretary of Defense Mel Laird and Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans) were able to offer ideas and suggestions, in a way hard to picture in today’s political world.

Finally, Jodie Allen, who worked as an analyst at HEW at the time, pointed out that the visionary and far-ranging nature of the welfare-reform ideas was based on meticulous collection and analysis of an extraordinary amount of data.

One point touched upon by most of the panelists was that welfare reform failed to get a fair shake from the journalistic pundits of the day. Predictably, conservative columnists criticized it, while many liberal writers complained about what they saw as its flaws (to President Nixon’s surprise).

Photo (left to right):  Robert Patricelli, Jodie T. Allen, Paul O’Neill, John Price participate in the fifth Nixon Legacy forum at the George Washington University School of Public Affairs. The four panelists discussed President Nixon’s welfare reform initiatives. Lee Heubner, former RN speechwriter and George Washington University Professor of Communications moderated.