What Civil War Pensions Can Teach Democrats About Winning Legislative Strategy


To understand how small programs grow, it is useful 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% of the northern fighting-age male population. Of these, more than 360,000 men died of their injuries or illnesses, while more than 280,000 veterans suffered wounds in combat.

Although the Lincoln administration eventually resorted to conscription to maintain the necessary levels of force, the Union’s military effort relied primarily on volunteers, and these volunteers needed to be assured that in the event of death or injury, they and their families would be taken care of. To meet this need, in 1862, Republican-controlled Congress passed a law establishing pensions for widows and for soldiers and sailors who suffered from disabilities “incurred as a direct result of military service” or “from other causes. that can be directly attributed to injuries sustained or sustained. illness contracted during military service.

Initially, the program only involved a small number of veterans and their families. By the end of the war, less than 2% of the Union’s 1.8 million living veterans were receiving benefits, while only 25% of eligible widows were receiving pensions.

The numbers were low in part because some widows and veterans were initially reluctant to claim the benefits to which they were entitled. But the original design of the program has always been limited. Only veterans unable to work manually due to war-related injuries were eligible. Even 15 years after the end of the war, only 8.6% of former soldiers and sailors had applied for a pension.

Then something changed. In 1879, Congress passed the Arrears Act, allowing veterans who had never received benefits to file new claims and collect back pension payments. A former soldier may indeed discover wartime service disabilities many years after the fact. Congress further expanded the program 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 unable to work manually, as their disability whether or not related to the war. Indeed, the program has turned into old-age insurance for Union soldiers and sailors.

In 1900, almost three-quarters of Union veterans were receiving regular pensions. This percentage rose to 93.48% in 1915, although only about 400,000 veterans were still alive.

To perspective, at the turn of the century, Civil War pensions represented more than 40 percent of federal government spending.

How, then, explain the expansion of the program, from a targeted benefit for widows and servicemen with disabilities to a near universal social safety net for all veterans? The best answer is political. Veterans organizations, including the Grand Army of the Republic and its state-level affiliates, formed a powerful lobby that lobbied for more generous and inclusive benefits. At the same time, increased electoral competition in the North has prompted Democratic and Republican federal election candidates to support an expanded safety net.

It’s a testament to the sustainability of the program that when Irene Triplett, the daughter of a Union veteran, passed away in 2020, she was still receiving 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 largely been maintained.

When it was created in 1936, Social Security drew strong conservative opposition. The program also excluded people who worked in domestic services, hotels and laundries, agriculture or local utilities. These omissions were a deliberate concession to Southern Democrats in Congress, who rightly feared that if poor black residents had access to the federal social safety net, the economic dependency ties that served as the backbone of the Jim Crow economy could come loose. But in the 1950s, the opposition faded. Social Security has proven to be so popular that Democrats and moderate Republicans have patched loopholes in the program and made these workers eligible for participation. Over the following decades, benefits became more generous.

The same goes for Medicare and Medicaid, twin initiatives that conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater once called “socialized medicine.” Medicare was originally intended to provide limited hospitalization 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 therefore from medical coverage of employer), namely widows. and people with disabilities. Fast forward to 2021. Both programs have become virtually unassailable. Not only that, Medicare benefits have expanded considerably since 1965 and now include prescription drug coverage – a provision added under Republican President George W. Bush. Together, Medicare and Medicaid cover 141 million Americans, or about 43% of the nation’s population. Under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid coverage has also become much more extensive.

Or take the example of nutritional assistance. The Food Stamp program (known today as SNAP), designed under the Kennedy administration and intended to help a small number of very poor families maintain their food security, was originally very controversial. A quasi-monetary benefit, food stamps have overturned traditional patterns of social and economic deference, especially in the South, and thus generated 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 survived and expanded under Republican and Democratic presidents – 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 1966), the enrollment of which has increased. from 22.5 million in 1970 to 29.4 million in 2019.

Be certain, there are examples of safety net programs that made decrease or die – notably, Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a controversial Big Society initiative intended to provide cash assistance to a small portion of poor families headed by single parents. Given the program’s fee structure, as the number of indigent families headed by single parents increased, AFDC’s lists also increased. After decades of conservative opposition to the benefit, and amid widespread public disapproval, in 1996 President Bill Clinton and the Republican-led Congress dismantled the AFDC, replacing it with a more restrictive cash benefit. and temporary.

But AFDC is the exception that proves the rule. Once established – and even limited in their original design – safety net programs tend to expand beyond their original target population, and opposition to them tends to grow. fade as the audience gets used to their place in the country’s political economy.

History is not decisive. This is only a guide. Today’s political landscape is very different from that of previous eras. It’s tribal and polarized. Arguably, one of the two main parties now has a precarious relationship with democratic norms and principles. It is impossible to guess how the Build Back Better programs – if they ever materialize – could fare in such an environment.

But for over 150 years, history has been remarkably consistent on one point. Once enacted, social protection programs prove stubbornly difficult to eliminate. Instead, they tend to grow in size and popularity. This wisdom deserves to be considered as Democrats cross the home stretch in their efforts to push through the president’s platform.

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