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What Civil War Pensions Can Teach Dems About Winning Legislative Strategy

To understand how small programs grow 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 roughly 37 percent of the North’s fighting-age male population. Of that number, over 360,000 men died, either of their wounds or disease, while over 280,000 veterans sustained combat injuries.

Though the Lincoln administration ultimately resorted to conscription to sustain necessary force levels, the Union military effort relied principally on volunteers, and those volunteers required assurance that, in the event of death or injury, they and their families would be cared for. To meet this need, in 1862 the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation establishing pensions for widows and for soldiers and sailors who sustained disabilities “incurred as a direct consequence of … military duty” or “from causes which can be directly traced to injuries received or disease contracted while in military service.”

At first, the program captured only a small number of veterans and their families. At the war’s conclusion, less than 2 percent of the Union’s 1.8 million living veterans collected benefits, while only 25 percent of eligible widows drew pensions.

The numbers were small partially because some widows and veterans initially proved reluctant to claim benefits to which they were entitled. But the program’s original design was always limited. Only veterans who were incapable of manual labor due to war-related injuries were eligible. Even 15 years after the war ended, only 8.6 percent of former soldiers and sailors had filed for pensions.

Then something changed. In 1879, Congress passed the Arrears Act, allowing veterans who had never collected benefits to file new claims and collect back pension payments. A former soldier could effectively discover disabilities related to wartime service many years after the fact. Congress expanded the program yet 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 became incapable of manual labor, regardless of whether their disability was war-related. In effect, the program morphed into old age insurance for Union soldiers and sailors.

By 1900, almost three-quarters of Union veterans drew regular pensions. That percentage grew to 93.48 percent in 1915, though only about 400,000 veterans were still living.

For perspective, by the turn of the century, Civil War pensions accounted for over 40 percent of federal government spending.

How, then, to explain the program’s expansion, from a targeted benefit for widows and disabled service members into a near-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 pressed for more generous and inclusive benefits. At the same time, increased electoral competition in the North incentivized Democratic and Republican candidates for federal office to support an expanded safety net.

It’s a testament to the program’s staying power that when Irene Triplett, the daughter of a Union veteran, died in 2020, she was still drawing a monthly payment of $73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs. She was the program’s last beneficiary.

Throughout the 20th century, the same pattern has largely held.

At the time of its inception in 1936, Social Security drew vociferous conservative opposition. The program also excluded people who worked in domestic service, hotels and laundries, agriculture or local government service. These omissions were a deliberate concession to Southern Democrats in Congress, who rightly feared that if poor Black residents enjoyed access to the federal social safety net, bonds of economic dependency that served as a backbone of the Jim Crow economy might loosen. But by the 1950s, opposition faded away. Social Security proved so popular that Democrats and moderate Republicans patched holes in the program and made such workers eligible for participation. In ensuing decades, benefits became more generous.

The same was true of Medicare and Medicaid, twin initiatives that conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater once decried as “socialized medicine.” Medicare was originally intended to provide limited hospital insurance and voluntary medical insurance, while Medicaid was designed to cover a presumably small number of very poor people who were permanently excluded from the workplace (and thus, from employer-based medical coverage) — namely, widows and disabled people. Fast forward to 2021. Both programs have become virtually unassailable. Not only that, Medicare benefits have expanded vastly since 1965 and now include prescription drug insurance — a provision added under a Republican president, George W. Bush. Together, Medicare and Medicaid cover 141 million Americans — roughly 43 percent of all the country’s population. Under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid coverage has also become much more expansive.

Or take the example of nutritional assistance. The Food Stamp program (known today as SNAP), conceived under the Kennedy administration and intended to help a small number of very poor families maintain food security, was originally very controversial. A near-cash benefit, food stamps upended traditional patterns of social and economic deference, particularly in the South, and thus engendered opposition from conservative Democrats and Republicans — this, despite its limited reach. Even after the Johnson administration expanded the program, in 1965 it only covered about 500,000 people. Yet 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 is true of free or subsidized school meals (a product of the 1966 Child Nutrition Act), whose enrollment grew from 22.5 million in 1970 to 29.4 million in 2019.

To be sure, there are examples of safety net programs that did diminish or die — notably, Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), a controversial Great Society initiative intended to provide cash assistance to a small portion of poor families led by single parents. Given the program’s entitlement structure, as the number of indigent families led by single parents grew, so did AFDC’s rolls. After decades of conservative opposition to the benefit, and amid widespread public disapproval, in 1996 President Bill Clinton and the Republican-led Congress dismantled AFDC, replacing it with a more restrictive and temporary cash benefit.

But AFDC is the exception that proves the rule. Once established — and even when limited in their original design — safety net programs tend to expand beyond their original target population, and opposition to them tends to melt away as the public grows more accustomed to their place in the nation’s political economy.

History is not determinative. It’s only a guide. Today’s political landscape is markedly different from that of earlier eras. It’s tribal and polarized. Arguably, one of the two major parties now enjoys a shaky relationship to democratic norms and principles. There is no guessing how the Build Back Better programs — should they ever come to fruition — might fare in such an environment.

But for over 150 years, history has been remarkably consistent on one point. Once enacted social welfare programs prove stubbornly difficult to eliminate. Instead, they tend to grow in size and popularity. That wisdom bears consideration as Democrats round the final stretch in their effort to pass the president’s agenda.

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