American Social Policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s (2022)

in: 1970s and Beyond, Civil Rights, Eras in Social Welfare History, Recollections, War on Poverty: 1964

American Social Policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s

byJerry D. Marx, Ph.D., M.S.W.,University of New Hampshire

The Affluent Society

As the decade of the 1960s began, the United States had the “highest mass standard of living” in world history.1 The strong American postwar economy of the late 1940s and 1950s continued into the 1960s. In fact, from 1940 to 1960, the U.S. gross national product increased fivefold.2 There were several reasons for this economic growth. As previously discussed, the military spending during World War II finally pulled the economy out of the Great Depression. The temporary curtailment in production of many consumer products during the war resulted in a burst of consumer demand at war’s end. Servicemen rushed home to take a job, buy a car, purchase a home in the suburbs, and start a family. This led to a “baby boom” and further consumer demand for products. During this period, growing U.S. corporations were well positioned to meet both domestic and foreign demand for products, given the crumbled economic infrastructure of foreign competitors such as Japan and Germany. Military spending during the “Cold War” rivalry with the Soviet Union added further to this economic expansion, creating a formidable “military-industrial complex” in the United States.3

Leading intellectuals began to deliberate on the nature of this society and the impact it was having on American citizens. In 1958, economist John Kenneth Galbraith published “The Affluent Society” in which he described the growing power of American corporations, their success at producing material goods, their ability to create consumer demand through advertising, and the growing “New Class” of highly educated business and professional people for whom work was no longer dirty and menial, but interesting and rewarding.4 Galbraith argued that, in the old world, poverty was an “all-pervasive fact” of life, but that in the contemporary United States, social and economic policies should be based on the fact that “the ordinary individual has access to amenities – foods, entertainment, personal transportation, and plumbing – in which not even the rich rejoiced a century ago.”5

Four years later, in 1962, social critic (and Socialist) Michael Harrington chose to emphasize “The Other America” and its “culture of poverty.”6 This, he argued, was a land of between 40,000,000 and 50,000,000 relatively invisible poor people, the unskilled workers, the migrant farm workers, minorities, people for whom work was sporadic, demeaning, and demoralizing. To be sure, the other America is not impoverished in the same sense as those poor nations where millions cling to hunger as a defense against starvation. This country has escaped such extremes. That does not change the fact that tens of millions of Americans are, at this very moment, maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency. If these people are not starving, they are hungry, and sometimes fat with hunger, for that is what cheap foods do. They are without adequate housing and education and medical care. But even more basic, this poverty twists and deforms the spirit. The American poor are pessimistic and defeated, and they are victimized by mental suffering to a degree unknown in Suburbia.7

Civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining the cause of the 1965 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, also focused on the poor in a land of plenty. I believe what happened in Los Angeles was of grave national significance. What we witnessed in the Watts area was the beginning of a stirring of a deprived people in a society who had been by-passed by the progress of the previous decade. I would minimize the racial significance and point to the fact that these were the rumblings of discontent from the “have-nots” within the midst of an affluent society.8

In the early 1960s, poverty for a family of four was officially defined as living on an income of less than $3,000.>sup>9 Populations at high risk of poverty in the 60s included rural Americans, minorities, low-paid workers, and female-headed families. (The poverty status of older Americans improved considerably during the 60s thanks to increases in Social Security benefits.) To illustrate, in 1966, the percentage of rural Americans in poverty was 19 percent, compared to 14 percent for urban Americans. In that same year, the percent of nonwhite Americans in poverty was 41 percent, in contrast to 12 percent of white Americans. Furthermore, 32 percent of poor families in 1967 contained a head of the household that worked full-time, and another 25 percent of poor “breadwinners” worked part-time. What is more, many poor female heads of households, because of child-rearing duties and lack of child care, could not work outside the home, leaving 11 million of the poor in 1963 in these families.

The Political Agenda

Kennedy and the New Frontier

Democrat John F. Kennedy won a close presidential election over the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon, in 1960. Kennedy, the first Catholic President in American history, won by 2/10 of 1 percent of the popular vote.10 Much like the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Albert Gore, the 1960 election was so close that there was talk of a recount in certain disputed states, but Nixon discouraged the effort, noting how impractical and disruptive a recount would be, and declaring, “No one steals the presidency of the United States.”11

Did You Know?

John Kennedy was often criticized for his wealthy father’s heavy financing of his political campaigns. Showing his sense of humor during public speeches, John (called “Jack” by relatives and friends) would pretend to have just received a wire from his father. Reading it to the audience, John would say: “Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary – I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide victory.”12

Although a Democrat and an activist relative to his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy at first did not share the passion for social reform characteristic of traditional Roosevelt Democratic supporters. Given his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. was FDR’s Ambassador to England, Kennedy appeared more interested in foreign affairs than domestic policy.13

In any case, most of Kennedy’s legislative agenda, called “the New Frontier,” was not approved by Congress during his lifetime. The reasons for this included his congressional inexperience and low-status with older politicians in Congress.14

In getting elected, Kennedy, to a significant extent, had circumvented the traditional political process and appealed directly to the American people through the media. His career in Congress (or any political position) had not been long or distinguished, typical qualifications for a serious presidential bid.

Yet, both John and his father were familiar with Hollywood and the modern media.15 Most television viewers who watched the first 1960 debate between candidates Kennedy and Nixon thought that Kennedy with his movie star appearance had won, while radio listeners gave the edge to Nixon. As such, John Kennedy became the first made-for-television presidential candidate. But there was more than the television advantage. The Kennedy campaign adroitly used his photogenic qualities to appeal to the editors and readers of many popular magazines. During the campaign, the nation’s newsstands were filled with positive articles on Kennedy, his wife, and family.

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And there was more to Kennedy than glamour. Setting a trend in modern American politics, the Kennedy family was the first to use private polling to ascertain local voter concerns during the campaign.16 As a result, Kennedy was able to directly address key issues of local communities as he traveled the nation in search of the presidency. These advantages in addition to the Kennedy family wealth got him elected, but Congressional leaders, given the razor-thin victory, saw no significant mandate for Kennedy’s legislative agenda.

Despite this disadvantage, the Kennedy Administration did enjoy some legislative success.17 The Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962 was the country’s first major job training program. Also, the Kennedy Administration increased federal funding to local welfare departments for casework, job training, and job placement through passage in 1962 of the Public Welfare Amendments to the Social Security Act (also known as the “Social Service Amendments”). Reflecting a stronger economy than the 1930s, the focus on job training was more conservative than Franklin Roosevelt’s emphasis on public employment during the Great Depression. It should also be noted that the Kennedy Administration allowed states to include two-parent, unemployed families in their AFDC programs. The change was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children – Unemployed Parent, or simply, AFDC-UP.

During his campaign, Kennedy had visited the rural poverty areas of Appalachia. (A famous photo contrasts a handsome, well-polished Kennedy standing in front of a destitute Appalachian family on its front porch.)18 Once elected, Kennedy created the Area Redevelopment Agency in 1961.19 This agency provided support in the form of loans, subsidies, and public works to local businesses in poverty areas such as Appalachia.

The Kennedy family had also been sensitized to needs of people with mental illness, given that one of John’s sisters had suffered with this problem. Consequently, the Community Mental Health Centers Act was passed in 1963.20This act provided federal funds to public or private nonprofit organizations for construction, and later staffing, of community mental health centers providing outpatient and prevention services.

Another Kennedy legislative success was the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961.21 This program, although small and less well known, became a model for many of the Great Society programs. It sought to reduce juvenile delinquency by providing federal funding for local demonstration projects (such as “Mobilization for Youth” in New York) that created opportunities for youth education and training. These opportunities would be created through a comprehensive and rationally planned set of services to youth and their neighbors. These services might include individual, family, and group work as well as community organization.

Furthermore, in 1962, the Kennedy Administration passed tax credits for business investment and increased business depreciation allowances.22 These policy changes, along with an income tax cut passed in 1964, contributed to the continued economic growth of the 1960s.

Did You Know?

The night of his nomination for President, Kennedy decided to select Senator Lyndon Johnson from Texas as his Vice Presidential running mate. Some people close to Kennedy were shocked and angry with the selection. When confronted, Kennedy responded: “I’m 43 years old and I’m the healthiest candidate for President in the United States… I’m not going to die in office. So the vice presidency doesn’t mean anything.”23 Four years later in November of 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Although his legislative successes were few, Kennedy created a significant policy agenda before his death for his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ).24 This agenda included legislation dealing with civil rights, poverty, food stamps, health care, public school aid, and further tax reform. All of these were Kennedy initiatives in various stages of progress when he was assassinated in 1963.

Kennedy and Johnson, as a result, turned out to be a great team for the development of social programs. Kennedy created the agenda. He and his advisers were the intellectuals, the idea generators, the brains behind the legislative proposals.25 In fact, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the long-time Speaker of the House, believed that one of Kennedy’s greatest achievements as President was the talented people he brought to government.

Lyndon Johnson, who scoffed at intellectualism, subsequently pushed Kennedy’s agenda through Congress. Johnson became the idea champion before Congress, the political muscle needed to pass legislation in the 1960s.26 In contrast to Kennedy, Johnson had much congressional experience and knew how to get things done in Congress. He consulted many members of Congress during the legislative process. He gave credit to individual members of Congress for legislative successes. In short, Johnson was a better “politician” than was Kennedy in the traditional sense of negotiation and compromise. The result was the successful passage of much federal legislation during the Johnson Administration.

Johnson and the Great Society

President Lyndon Johnson significantly expanded the federal partnership in American social welfare, a partnership of the federal government with private and other public institutions to promote social welfare. As discussed in earlier chapters, when traditional institutions in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors failed during the Great Depression, the federal government under President Franklin Roosevelt was forced to create new institutional relationships in an attempt to solve the crisis. That is, Roosevelt was forced to establish a significant role for the federal government in maximizing social welfare throughout the country. The “Great Society,” as Johnson called his legislative agenda, greatly expanded this role.

The agenda of the Great Society consisted of numerous pieces of legislation. The first, and perhaps most important, was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When Johnson took office, the “Civil Rights Movement” was already well underway through court action and the voluntary efforts of various groups in the nonprofit sector. In 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional.27 Then in 1955, the refusal of an African American woman named Rosa Parks to give up her seat to a white rider on a Montgomery Alabama bus lead to a “boycott” of all public buses in that city by African Americans. The Montgomery Improvement Association, headed by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the successful boycott, in which African Americans refused to spend their money on bus transportation until the buses were desegregated.

This civil rights victory led to further efforts to challenge segregation in southern states. African American college students began to use a “sit-in” strategy to desegregate lunch counters in stores across the south, refusing to leave their seats until served or jailed.28 In 1961, eleven youth calling themselves “Freedom Riders” began a protest of segregated bus stations and other discriminatory interstate travel laws. Then, in 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by King, and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights lead a campaign to protest segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, the largest industrial city in the South. King’s coalition used a nonviolent strategy, employing peaceful mass marches, sit-ins, and business boycotts to achieve their objectives. His advocacy effort attracted media attention nationwide (indeed, worldwide), forcing the cooperation of the federal government in enforcing African American civil rights.

Jailed during the Birmingham campaign, King wrote a famous letter to a group of clergy that had publicly criticized King’s coalition for moving too quickly for social change. Here is part of his letter written in response while in jail:

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sister and brothers at whim… when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority
beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”… when your first name becomes “nigger…” when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”29

King believed public pressure generated from the Birmingham demonstrations contributed greatly to the Johnson Administration’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.30 The act promoted black voting rights by outlawing poll taxes and literacy tests. It also called for desegregation of public facilities and prohibited employment discrimination in organizations receiving federal money. To oversee the employment requirements, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established. In addition, the U.S. Attorney General was given the right to file suits to desegregate schools. A weakness of the legislation was that enforcement was done on a case-by-case basis (i.e., individual law suits). This feature of the bill made it more difficult to enforce antidiscrimination.

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To expedite legal action, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was passed.31 This act gave the federal government the right to presume discrimination in any state (or its subdivisions) where less than 50% of minorities voted in the latest federal election. The act also presumed discrimination in any area using screening tests such as literacy tests. In these cases, federal authorities could directly administer elections. Within one week from the bills signing, the federal Justice Department had filed suits to have poll taxes voided in Texas, Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama.32 In addition, voter screening tests were suspended in several states.

Did You Know?

The Reverend Martin Luther King credited the civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama with the passing of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Indeed, President Johnson encouraged King to go ahead with the march in an effort to build mass public support for the legislation.33 They both hoped no one would get hurt, but Alabama state troopers used tear gas, clubs, and whips to stop the march. Television coverage of the graphic violence served to generate support for the civil rights legislation, just as Johnson and King had hoped it would. In any case, the 1965 Civil Rights Act is a clear example of government and nonprofit voluntary groups working in partnership to produce social change.

A third major piece of legislation passed during the Johnson Administration was Medicare (Title 18 of the Social Security Act).34 Medicare made health care more affordable for older Americans. The mandatory part of the program, Part A, covered various hospital costs and was financed by a payroll tax on employers and employees. Another characteristic of the bill is that it required no means test (i.e., no income requirements for eligibility). Some of its weaker characteristics were its failure to cover many chronic or long-term conditions. Furthermore, it did not cover preventative and outreach services and contained few cost controls.

To assist the poor with health care, the Johnson Administration passed Medicaid (Title 19 of the Social Security Act).35 This legislation was funded through matching grants with states. States had to provide emergency care and certain other basic services. In addition, each state had to accept people receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Beyond these requirements, it was left to each state to determine eligibility requirements and any additional services. The weaknesses of Medicaid were similar to those of Medicare. It did not promote outreach and preventative services and there were few cost controls in the legislation.

A fifth major piece of legislation passed as part of Johnson’s Great Society was the Older Americans Act of 1965. Title 3 of this act authorized the creation of a national network of Area Agencies on Aging. These agencies coordinate and subsidize services such as homecare and nutrition programs for older Americans.

The Johnson Administration also passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965.36 Johnson, a former public school teacher, had been sensitized to the needs of low-income schools working in Texas. This act provided federal assistance to low-income public school districts. In so doing, the legislation allowed private schools to share books and supplies with public schools.

Other Great Society programs included the Work Incentive Program and the Food Stamp Program. The Work Incentive Program was part of the welfare amendment of 1967. This program funded training programs and child care for women on welfare.37 It was one of the first punitive pieces of welfare reform in that clients could be cut off from AFDC if they refused job training or employment. Yet, the program allowed clients to keep part of their employment earnings without a reduction in benefits. Also, as stated, the Johnson Administration passed the Food Stamp Act, which established a Food Stamp Program to assist the poor in purchasing food. This program was later expanded, standardized (in terms of eligibility), and made mandatory on all states during the Nixon Administration.

The centerpiece of Johnson’s Great Society legislative agenda, however, was the “War On Poverty.” This antipoverty legislation, officially entitled The Economic Opportunity Act of 1965, consisted of several programs including Job Corps and the Neighborhood Youth Corps.38 Job corps provided urban school dropouts with alternative educational and training programs, while the Neighborhood Youth Corps provided part-time jobs to youth in local agencies.

The War on Poverty also offered a Work-Study Program that provided poor college students with campus jobs.39 In addition, the Volunteers in Service to America program, better known as “VISTA,” was initiated. VISTA was a domestic version of the popular Peace Corps program. Instead of sending Americans to work in foreign countries for a stipend, VISTA sent them to do community organizing in poor U.S. neighborhoods. Furthermore, the “War” included legal aid to the poor and the creation of medical clinics in poor neighborhoods.

The most controversial piece of the War On Poverty was the “Community Action Programs,” referred to as “CAP” agencies.40 Housed in the Office of Economic Opportunity, these CAP agencies were given several objectives: to plan and coordinate local services for the needy, to fund and deliver certain services (such as the preschool program, Head Start), and to advocate for the poor. Not only were the CAP agencies supposed to advocate for the poor, they were instructed to encourage “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in their programs. Maximum feasible participation of the poor was viewed as a way to bridge social reform and individual change. More specifically, proponents reasoned that empowerment through participation in social change activities would lead to better mental health for the individual. To promote empowerment and maximum feasible participation of the poor, many of the CAP agencies employed paraprofessionals from their neighborhoods and client populations.

Although CAP programs such as Head Start have proven very successful over time, the CAP agencies suffered from several weaknesses.41 Their objectives proved to be too broad, and at times, contradictory, therefore confusing the mission of the agencies. Were they a planning agency or an advocacy agency or a direct service agency? This ambiguity led to problems in implementing the programs at the local level. To illustrate, the Johnson Administration wanted to reduce welfare dependency, while clients used Great Society legal aid services to challenge welfare denials. What is more, many CAP agencies suffered from poor management practices, including inefficiency, patronage, and corruption.

The CAP agencies were indicative of the weaknesses of the Great Society legislation in general. Johnson wanted to be a great president, even greater than his hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, although many social programs were established under Johnson, his administration did not pay enough attention to adequate funding and proper implementation.42 Fewer programs, better funded and implemented may have been more effective in the long run for American social welfare. Instead, many Americans got the impression that the federal government was just “throwing money” at social problems. This perception, along with Johnson’s prolonging of the Vietnam War, turned popular opinion against him and undermined his Great Society programs. In the end, he decided not to run for reelection.

Yet, those close to Johnson maintain that his commitment to the poor and civil rights was genuine.43 He accomplished in civil rights and national health care what Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal did not. In so doing, millions of needy Americans have benefited from the right to vote, Medicare, Medicaid, legal aid, Head Start, student financial aid, and other Great Society programs.

Critical Analysis: Was the Johnson Presidency a Failure?

Some historians consider the presidency of Lyndon Johnson to be a failure, but is this a fair and accurate assessment? True, Johnson significantly expanded the United State’s war in Vietnam, stating: “I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went meaning communist.”44 Yet, at least four presidents – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon – can share some of the blame for the Vietnam War.45 They all contributed to American involvement in the Vietnam War. In any case, haven’t the Great Society programs helped millions of Americans at risk of racial discrimination and poverty? These programs weren’t perfectly designed in hind sight, but weren’t they critically needed? Does foreign policy failure outweigh domestic policy progress when evaluating a presidency?

Nixon and the Federal Social Welfare Partnership

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Richard M. Nixon succeeded Lyndon Johnson as President of the United States in 1968. Although a Republican who was highly critical of Johnson’s Great Society, Nixon continued expanding the federal partnership in social welfare.46 Nixon’s policy views on the Great Society reflected the anger and resentment of the middle class and many local community leaders with the concept of maximum feasible participation of the poor in local services. That is, the practical realities of empowering the poor to take more control of local community institutions and services threatened local community politicians and administrators, leaving a resentment that Nixon capitalized on politically.

Did You Know?

President Richard Nixon detested social workers! He felt that they coddled the undeserving poor. He also felt that many of the Great Society services were ineffective programs that served bureaucrats and social workers more than the country.47

At the same time, however, Nixon sought to build voter support for his presidency and the Republican Party by enacting more and better social legislation than the Democratic Party.48 He did so by promoting legislation that helped the working poor and what America has historically viewed as the “deserving poor” – older Americans, people with disabilities, and children. Nixon pursued his strategy, to a considerable extent, by adding expansive amendments to Democratic policy proposals, by out-bidding them on certain pieces of legislation that assisted the working and/or deserving poor. In short, he tried to beat the Democrats at their own game as he saw it. The result was the passage of a considerable amount of health and human service legislation during Nixon’s presidency and a substantial addition to the federal government’s responsibility for social welfare.

Legislation enacted by the Nixon Administration included the Supplemental Security Income program in 1972.49 This legislation brought Old Age Assistance, Aid to the Blind, and Aid to the Disabled under the sole administration of the Social Security Administration of the federal government. Most of the cost for the program was assumed by the federal government. Supplemental Security Income, better known as “SSI,” provided assistance to people with mental and physical disabilities. This clientele included deinstitutionalized mental health patients. An important point to remember with SSI is that Nixon, the Great Society critic, greatly expanded the number of people receiving assistance in the various categorical services that comprise SSI.

Nixon also expanded the federal government’s role in the Food Stamp Program by passing reforms to the program in 1970 and 1973.50 He made funding and administrative oversight of the program a responsibility of the federal government. In doing this, Nixon established national eligibility standards for Food Stamps which included the working poor. Nixon also made participation in the Food Stamp Program mandatory for all states.

During his first term, Nixon also approved a 20 percent increase in Social Security benefits and indexed Social Security to inflation.51 This meant that as the cost of living went up, benefits would also rise. Unfortunately, the legislation did not include a corresponding increase in the payroll tax to fund the benefit increase. This, along with double digit inflation and an increase in retired people per worker, contributed to an eventual funding crisis in the Social Security Program.

Nixon also pioneered in the use of Revenue Sharing and Block Grants.52 “General Revenue Sharing” provided federal funds to local government for general operating expenses, while “Special Revenue Sharing” (including Block Grants) contributed federal funds to local government for broad categorical areas.

Examples of Nixon’s Special Revenue Sharing were the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and the Housing and Community Development Act. CETA was a consolidation of job training programs, some of which included public service jobs. (Hence, CETA funds could only be used by local government for this purpose.) The 1974 Housing and Community Development Act contained the Community Development Block Grant Program. These federal grants could be used by local communities for neighborhood improvement.

Title XX of the Social Security Act, passed during the Nixon Administration, was also designed as a block grant. This legislation contributed federal funds to states for a broad array of social services – including critically needed services such as child care and domestic violence shelters. (It should be noted here that many local private nonprofit health and human service providers ultimately received these funds through service contracts with state government – part of the federal, state, and local partnership in social welfare!)
Nixon was also the first president to pass legislation which used the tax system to give resources to the poor. This was the “Earned Income Tax Credit.”53 The credit was a payment to the working poor with dependent children of up to $400 based on a percentage of their earned income for the year.

Other legislation passed during the Nixon Administration included the Rehabilitation Act (1973), the Education for All Handicapped Act (1975), the Health Maintenance Act (1973), the Family Planning Services and Population Act (1974), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970), the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act (1974), and the Child Abuse Prevention Act (1974).54 The Rehabilitation Act led to major efforts to make buildings, public transportation, and jobs accessible to people with disabilities, while the Education for All Handicapped Act subsequently “mainstreamed” students with disabilities in public schools. A bill that would lead to significant changes in the U.S. health care system, the Health Maintenance Act provided funding for the development of Health Maintenance Organizations. Another Nixon health bill, the Family Planning Services and Population Act helped low-income women obtain family planning services. And the Occupational Safety and Health Act provided federal oversight of safety standards in industry through the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as “OSHA.”

The final two pieces of legislation dealt with child welfare-related issues. In the early 70s, there was a growing concern in America with child abuse. Part of this concern was the physical abuse of children guilty of minor delinquencies, but institutionalized in adult facilities. Consequently, amendments to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act in 1974 offered support to local juvenile diversion services for runaway and truant youth, while the Child Abuse Prevention Act provided funding to universities and demonstration projects for research on child abuse and neglect.

It should also be noted that Nixon took some positive steps on the issue of civil rights.55 For example, he followed through on desegregation of southern schools. In addition, the Nixon Administration’s “Philadelphia Plan” promoted affirmative action in the employment of women and minorities. Yet, Nixon’s agenda in his second term became more conservative with respect to federal spending on programs that might benefit these groups. Public opinion polls showed that many white ethnic, blue-collar, and middle-class groups resented the militant tactics of activist groups and opposed further social spending. Thus, during his second term, Nixon attempted to focus more on the concerns of this “silent majority” – issues such as inflation, government spending, and ironically, crime. Facing the possibility of impeachment because of his involvement in the cover-up of a burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Nixon was forced to resign the presidency in 1974.56

Discussion: Politics, Social Workers, and Ethics

The June 17th 1972 burglary that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon took place in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C.; hence, the scandal came to be known as “Watergate.”57 It took place during Nixon’s campaign for re-election. One of the men arrested in the break-in of the Democratic National Headquarters, James McCord, was a “security consultant” for the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and “security coordinator” for the “Committee to Re-elect the President” meaning Nixon. As later revealed, Watergate was only part of a vast array of break-ins, wiretaps, and sabotage connected to Nixon.58 Nixon’s rationalization of the Watergate burglary was that this type of political behavior was not unique to him, except that he got caught. In fact, in his first congressional campaign, all of his pamphlets were stolen in a break-in at Republican Party Headquarters in California. The pamphlets, costing $3,000, had been purchased with money received from his wife’s sale of a piece of land.59 Was Nixon’s conduct in political office pretty much standard or was it significantly different and unethical? Does gaining and maintaining public office in America often involve unethical behavior? In any case, what lessons and concerns should social workers involved in politics derive from the Nixon story?

Developments in the Social Sector

The Women’s Movement

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The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s helped to rekindle the Women’s Movement of the 1970s.60 Women have often been empowered to organize around their own specific issues by prior involvement in other social movements. Women were very active in the Civil Rights Movement just as they were in the Abolition Movement, the Temperance Movement, and the Antipauper Movement.

But the Civil Rights Movement was not the only factor contributing to the growth in the Women’s Movement.61 Other factors included the publication of Betty Friedan’s book, “The Feminine Mystique.” This best seller discussed “the problem that had no name.” This problem was the lack of identity of women in America. That is, American women at the time gained recognition only through the achievements of their husbands and children. For middle class women in the 50s and 60s, working outside the home was not an option. Thus the homemaker living in the dream home in the suburbs with all the latest labor-saving appliances was, in fact, suffering from depression.

Another influential book was Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, published in 1975. This book discussed the various ways that women throughout history have been the victims of domestic violence and rape. The prevention of violence against women, therefore, became a key issue for the women’s movement.

Another issue underlying the women’s movement was discrimination in the workplace. Those women who did work outside the home were paid a lower wage than men doing the same work – about 69 cents for every dollar the male was paid. Furthermore, the 1973 Roe verses Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and the fact that the Great Society had failed to adequately address women’s issues served to galvanize women across America. These kind of issues came up again and again in the growing number of women’s groups and women’s studies courses. The result was a major campaign to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. In the end, the Amendment was not passed, but the campaign helped women to see their common interests, leading to successful efforts in the 1980s and 90s for increased women’s rights and services.

Personal Profiles: Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm

One of the most high profile civil rights activists of the 60s was a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer. Born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Fannie dropped out of school at age 6 to help support her family by picking cotton.62 Yet, during her civil rights career, she would receive honorary degrees from two colleges, including the prestigious Howard University.

In August of 1962, Hamer tried to register to vote, but was rejected when she failed to interpret a section of the Constitution correctly.63 She finally passed the screening test in December of 1962. However, when she tried to vote in August of 1963, she was rejected again, because she had not paid a poll tax for two years. This occurred after she had been arrested in June of 1963 in Winona, Mississippi while trying to integrate a segregated bus terminal with a busload of other African Americans. While in jail, she was severely beaten by two inmates on orders from police officers.

Showing incredible courage, Hamer continued her community organizing around voter registration and other social issues throughout her life. In September of 1965, she was asked to testify at a closed hearing of the House Elections Committee. During her testimony, Hamer stated that if “Negroes were allowed to vote freely, I could be sitting up here with you right now as a Congresswoman.”64

A second prominent female activist in the 1960s was Shirley Chisholm. Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York to immigrants from Barbados and Guiana, Chisholm went on to earn a Masters Degree in Education from Columbia University.65 She was elected to Congress in 1969 while emphasizing such social issues as job training, equal education, adequate housing, enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, child care, and an end to the Vietnam War. In 1971, Chisholm ran for President of the United States, becoming the first viable female candidate of color. She ended up receiving 151 delegate votes for the presidential nomination. After the campaign, Chisholm stated, “What I hope most, is that now there will be others who will
feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male.”66

Impact on Professional Social Work

By the 1960s, social workers were no longer leaders in developing social policy on a national level. As discussed previously, social work was more concerned with casework and professionalization in the 1950s. Therefore, with the possible exception of H.E.W. Secretary Wilbur Cohen and social workers involved in a few influential projects such as Mobilization for Youth, social work, as a profession, was not at the forefront of policymaking during the Great Society as it had been in the New Deal. According to John Ehrenreich, there were very few articles on civil rights in Social Work before 1963.67 Those most influential in 1960s social policy, people such as Michael Harrington and the Reverend Martin Luther King, were not social workers.

In fact, the profession of social work came under attack.68 The National Welfare Rights Organization, established in 1967, advocated for the rights of public welfare clients. The target of this advocacy was often social workers in administrative positions in the public welfare bureaucracy. In addition, social work students began to protest against schools of social work. Given key social issues such as civil rights and welfare rights during the 1960s, many students believed social work curriculums to be irrelevant. As a result, schools of social work started adding courses in community organization, social planning, as well as race, cultural, and oppression. Furthermore, social work courses started to include more information on systems theory, prevention, and the causes of social problems.

During the 1960s, casework, itself, was attacked for either ignoring the poor or controlling the poor.69 Those who criticized casework for ignoring the poor pointed to all of the caseworkers serving the middle class in family service agencies around the country. The poor, critics contended, did not benefit from these agencies. Those who claimed that casework was overly controlling of the poor based their claims on “social control theory.” They pointed to America’s system of philanthropy, of services based on the wealthy giving to the poor, as another form of colonialism – philanthropic colonialism. In response, schools of social work began emphasizing “client advocacy” and “radical casework.”

Later, the Women’s Movement also had an impact on professional social work. The theoretical base of casework (with its heavy Freudian emphasis) was criticized for being sexist.70 In any case, during the 60s and early 70s, social work once again began to reflect the sociopolitical environment at the time. This environment emphasized systemic causes of social problems and social action to remedy these problems.


1. Michael Harrington, The Other America (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1971), p. 1.
2. James Leiby, A History of Social Welfare and Social Work in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), p. 272-273.
3. John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics and The Public Purpose (New York: Mentor, 1975), p. 152.
4. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), pp. 260-267.
5. Ibid., p. 2.
6. Harrington, pp.1-2, 17.
7. Ibid., pp. 1-2.
8. Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: TimeWarner, 1998), pp. 291-292.
9. James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty: 1900-1994 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 158-159.
10. Paul F. Boller, Jr. Presidential Campaigns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 300.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid., p. 301.
13. David Halberstam, The Best And The Brightest (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972), p. 126.
14. Christopher Matthews, Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America (New York: Touchstone, 1997), pp. 128-129.
15. Peter Collier & David Horowitz, The Kennedys: An American Drama (New York: Warner Books, 1985), p. 40.
16. Matthews, p. 129.
17. Bruce S. Jansson, The Reluctant Welfare State: American Social Welfare Policies-Past, Present, and Future, 4th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001), p. 244; Walter I. Trattner, From Poor Law To Welfare State: A History Of Social Welfare In America, 6th ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1999), p. 320.
18. Philip B. Kunhardt,Jr., ed., Life in Camelot: The Kennedy Years (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1988), p. 110.
19. Jansson, p.244.
20. Jansson, p.244; Leiby, p. 308.
21. Leiby, pp. 310.
22. Jansson, p. 244; Leiby, p. 302.
23. Collier & Horowitz, p. 303.
24. Jansson, p. 246.
25. Halberstam, p. 810; See Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. and William Novak, Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O’Neill (New York: Random House, 1987).
26. Ibid., p. 369; Jansson, p. 247.
27. John H. Ehrenreich, The Altruistic Imagination: A History Of Social Work And Social Policy In The United States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 156; Carson, p. 50.
28. Carson, pp. 137, 153, 170.
29. Ibid., p. 192.
30. Carson, p. 289; Jansson, p. 248.
31. Jansson, p. 248.
32. Joseph A.Califano, Jr., The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2000), p. 58.
33. Ibid., pp. 55-56.
34. Jansson, p. 250.
35. Ibid., pp. 250-251.
36. Ibid., pp.251-252.
37. Jansson, pp. 254-255; Trattner, pp. 330-331; Leiby, p. 325.
38. Leiby, pp. 314-315.
39. Leiby, pp. 314-315; Jansson, p. 252.
40. Ehrenreich, pp. 169-175.
41. Edward D. Berkowitz, America’s Welfare State: From Roosevelt to Reagan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 118.
42. Halberstam, p. 788.
43. Califano, p.341.
44. Halberstam, p. 364.
45. Ibid., pp. 180, 219, 805-806.
46. Trattner, pp. 349-351.
47. Trattner, p. 349; Jannson, p. 277.
48. Jansson, p. 277; Trattner, p.349-351.
49. Jansson, p. 279; Trattner, p. 348.
50. Jansson, pp. 281-282.
51. Jansson, p. 282; Trattner, p. 348.
52. Jansson, pp. 282-284.
53. Trattner, p. 350.
54. Jansson, pp. 285-286; Phyllis J. Day, A New History of Social Welfare, 2nd ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997), p. 355.
55. Ibid., pp. 284-285, 286-289.
56. David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (New York: Dell, 1979), p. 190, 846-847.
57. Robert H. Ferrell, Emerging As A World Power, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Almanac Of American History (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993), p. 593.
58. Halberstam, pp. 847, 858; Ferrell, p. 593.
59. Matthews, p. 36.
60. Howard Zinn, A People’s History Of The United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995), p. 494.
61. Ibid., pp. 495-501.
62. Harriet Sigerman, Biographical Supplement and Index, ed. Nancy F. Cott, The Young Oxford History of Women in the United States, vol.2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 73; Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (New York: Dutton/Penguin Books, 1993), pp. 12, 248-249.
63. Mills, pp. 36-37; 50-51, 57-58.
64. Ibid., p. 318.
65. Sigerman, p. 37; Reba Carruth & Vivian Jenkins Nelson, Shirley Chisholm: Woman of Complexity, Conscience, and Compassion, ed. Frank P. LeVeness & Jane P. Sweeney, Women Leaders in Contemporary U.S. Politics (Boulder, CO: Reinner, 1987), pp. 11, 13, 16.
66. Sigerman, p. 37.
67. Ehrenreich, p. 190.
68. Ibid., pp. 195-197.
69. Ibid., pp. 201-203.
70. Ibid., pp. 204-205.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format).Marx, J.D. (2011).American social policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Social Welfare History Project.Retrieved[date accessed]from

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5. The Rise of Conservatism: Crash Course US History #41
6. Barry McGuire - Eve Of Destruction
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