Lives of Promise: Nelson Rockefeller, Education, and Welfare

Nelson A. Rockefeller served as New York State’s 49th Governor from 1959 to 1973, serving for just under fifteen years. Rockefeller, during his time as Governor, had a great level of influence on the development of welfare programs and higher education in New York State, with reforms being passed during his time in office that affect the state to this very day. The Governor was one of the most important chief executives of New York State in recent history, and whether his legacy is positive or negative is up for interpretation. During his time in office, two major series of reforms took place; the first in higher education, and the second in welfare. While improvements and reforms in higher education can undoubtedly be labeled as a positive achievement, his legacy with regards to welfare in New York State have a less than perfect impact on the state, with its effects still seen today. Although widely praised as an iconic political leader from a storied family, his record on these two issues are important in understanding New York today and Rockefeller’s impact on the state’s history.

The Governor’s primary achievement was his contributions to higher education in New York State. Rockefeller’s chief goal in the field was to increase college attendance and to expand colleges so that there can be more opportunities for students of all social or economic standing. While the State University was established in 1948, “it was extremely weak. It was located within the State Education Department, an organizational relationship not designed to strengthen the public institutions.”[1] New York’s public institutions at the time were vastly outnumbered by private institutions, and Governor Rockefeller set it upon himself to expand the higher public education system in the State of New York. The development of community colleges in New York, in particular, was an issue taken by the Governor and quickly resolved, establishing the Full Opportunity Program in 1970 to accommodate the growing level of Baby Boomers attending College. The Full Opportunity Program was designed to “increase college access, particularly for the disadvantaged. The legislation’s major feature was an increase in State operating assistance to the community colleges.”[2] The Governor wanted to increase enrollment in universities, whether they be state schools or community colleges. To enact these key changes outlines however, Rockefeller also had to implement major reforms earlier in his administration.

After taking office in January 1959, Rockefeller’s interest in improving higher education was only increased by growing scientific developments around the world. Other competitors to New York, such as California and Illinois, “developed nationally prominent public universities and extensive community college systems.”[3] To tackle the rise of extensive growth in higher education in other states, the Governor quickly established the Heald Commission. The Commission, which was led by Henry Heald began work in 1959 shortly after the Governor took office, and reported to the State government in 1960. The report proposed changes that impacted the State’s education policies well into the 1960s and early 1970s. The Commission was key in Rockefeller’s desire to expand the state’s college and university system, gathering statistics and reporting on trends in education within New York State, and projections for future enrollment numbers and cost. The report  projected that “higher education enrollments would double from 1959 to 1970, and rise another 50 percent by 1980, going from 401,000 to 1,270,000 over this period.”[4] The Heald Report laid the groundwork for the key reforms that Rockefeller was looking to enact, bringing a “…dawning recognition that American higher education must emerge as a cohesive fabric rather than a loose, provincial network.”[5] Rockefeller observed that the higher education system upon his taking office was inadequate, and to accommodate these growing numbers, he needed to make education one of his top priorities as Governor of New York.

The Heald Report proposed major changes to New York State’s higher education system, desiring “…to improve New York’s college and university system,”[6] and laying the groundwork for the entire next decade of legislation within New York State to further develop the State University system as well as various community colleges. The report set three major goals for the state government; to make higher education more available, to establish a stronger public university system, and to achieve “…excellence in all institutions.”[7] Over the next few years, legislation was adopted by the state legislature allowing New York to catch up to states like California and Illinois, which already had a few years’ head-start from New York. In 1961, legislation was passed which reformed State University of New York (SUNY) schools, giving them more power as well as funding, the latter being spent on loans and scholarships to attract new students, as well as an increase of size in college facilities. These reforms made in 1961 and 1962 were major factors in the sudden development of SUNY and CUNY schools in New York State during Rockefeller’s first term as Governor, and helped to alleviate the problem the Heald Report projected would occur over the next few decades within New York.

The growth and development of New York’s higher education system under Governor Rockefeller was key in the development of New York as a major power in national education. Even from the start of his administration, Rockefeller believed that “…by assuring to free men of all nations the chance to nourish their spirit, enrich their mind, and live lives of promise,”[8] indicating as early on as his inauguration that he wanted to make developing higher education his priority. Under previous administrations in the 1950s, “New York’s public colleges, with some exceptions, were of marginal importance and quality, and New York high school graduates, particularly if they had low incomes, had very limited options within the state.”[9] Rockefeller’s development of New York’s higher education system is one of his lasting positive legacies in the state, and his desire to see New York catch up to other states that in the 1950s were already developing their university programs only went further to his push in the state government to create quality schools in not only New York City but also across the state, many of which New York still sees today. From the state of his administration to its end, the government spending on higher education rose from “$88 million in 1959 to $972 million in 1973.”[10] This concentration on education during the 1960s helped to maintain New York’s claim to be a major economic power. These changes also ensured that it would become one of the premier educational powers in the nation.

Another major field that Nelson Rockefeller concentrated on during his administration was that of public welfare. From the start of his administration, the Governor supported working with welfare, which he outlined in his inaugural address on January 1st, 1959 by stating that he will, among other things, “…improve and expand social welfare programs.”[11] Unlike his education policies, which can be regarded as a widespread success on most levels, Rockefeller’s welfare policies can be deemed as one of the more controversial aspects of his administration. Some of the reforms were poorly thought out, others idealistic and not taking into account the reality on the ground, instead of being attempts to experiment with society rather than create any lasting reforms. During the 1960s, welfare policies to fight the War on Poverty “…became a national priority, gaining quick endorsement by the Congress.”[12] Rockefeller, as he did with higher education, jumped on the opportunity to experiment with social programs and policy. The Governor, who had a record in the 1930s and the 1940s as a humanitarian worker interested in the development of countries in Latin America sought to use his experience in those fields to bring New York up to speed as well, working with the state legislature to propose a new agenda.

Governor Rockefeller wanted to target almost every major social issue afflicting the people of New York. He used every tool he had to push the state legislature to support every move in the field of welfare policy. The Democratic Party was enthusiastic to support welfare programs similar to those being passed by Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the Republicans largely followed their powerful Governor almost blindly in their support for the legislation. This was in part due to welfare programs having “the worthy goal of improving the quality of life, particularly for those disadvantaged citizens of our state.”[13] While Rockefeller’s first term from 1959 to 1963 was characterized by more Republican views towards welfare, his second term saw his evolution, where he began to concentrate more on the Great Society programs that President Johnson was himself passing on a national level. The Governor “…thrust the Department [of Health] into medical care in a bigger way than any other state health department anywhere in the country.”[14] Various improvements were made to the state’s health infrastructure, with billions being invested in the construction of hospitals and nursing homes. Despite these positive gains, Rockefeller was not an entirely positive influence on welfare in New York State, his personality often tying up legislation and desire to push through programs were negative to welfare programs in the short-term future.

Rockefeller upon taking the office of Governor was handed many issues that drove him to pass legislation to deal with the issues of welfare around the state. Before the 1960s, “…there were tell-tale signs of the State’s worsening economic climate which gave hint to fiscal problems which lay ahead. Reduction in growth in the state’s population, employment, and per capita income gave witness to this fact.”[15] Governor Rockefeller raised taxes to expand these welfare programs, and at the same time increased borrowing to pay for them. Unlike other great experiments in social policy during the 1960s, Governor Rockefeller was not interested in establishing a controlled experiment but went all-out in establishing the state’s complicated welfare system. He constructed hundreds of facilities during his time as Governor, and while there is no doubt he was well-intended in his motives. However, he “…moved too ambitiously in untested waters, unmindful of the tell-tale signs of a worsening economic climate.”[16] These attempts are best categorized as going too big too soon and lacking the precedence of long-term planning and experimentation.

Unlike Rockefeller’s higher education reforms his efforts to reform welfare had a mixed legacy. When he took office, New York’s per capita tax was roughly 35% higher than that of the rest of the United States, but by the time he left office, “New York’s taxes were the heaviest in the nation. At that time, New Yorkers were paying almost 60 percent more than the average citizen residing in other states.”[17] The Governor also increased the state’s debt as a result of his spending on welfare programs like Medicaid, prompting by 1972 “…borrowing more and, like anyone with growing debts and a so-so outlook for income, is finding its credit-worthiness a bit tarnished,”[18] a clear negative sign for the program’s perceived successes and its massive negative impact on New York’s economy throughout the 1960s. Rockefeller, therefore, left a negative impact on the state through his mediocre welfare reforms, and that “…the State will have to deal with the consequences of Rockefeller’s legacy long after this audience leaves the scene.”[19] Despite his tenure as Governor bringing positive benefits to higher education, it failed to leave the state in a better position in regards to welfare when he left office. He left the state in great debt, with higher taxes as well as with welfare programs that in their entirety did not work as well as they were intended to.

Higher education reforms and welfare reforms were among the most important, if not the most important aspects of Nelson A. Rockefeller’s term as Governor of New York. From 1959 to 1973, Rockefeller was influenced by his earlier experiences in Latin America, which helped him to observe the economic and social problems of lower classes. This influenced him during his time as Governor of the State of New York to push through reforms in the fields of education and social welfare. While his higher education reforms helped to transform the State University system of New York into a nationally recognized program, a positive legacy, his welfare reforms throughout the 1960s left the state in heavy debt and were less effective than the national programs put in place during this same time. These programs shaped New York State as it is today. The effects of the welfare programs of the 1960s can be seen in the state’s fiscal troubles of the 1970s and 80s, and the higher education reforms still have an impact on Colleges and Universities within New York State today. Because of these two legacies, a positive and a negative one in higher education and welfare, respectively, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller has a largely mixed legacy.

[1] Gerald Benjamin and T. Norman Hurd, Rockefeller in Retrospect: The Governor’s New York Legacy (Saratoga Springs, New York: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, 1984), 107.

[2] Benjamin and Hurd, 112.

[3] Benjamin and Hurd, 107.

[4] Benjamin and Hurd, 108.

[5] Fred M. Hechinger, “The Heald Report: Controversies in Three Areas Are Pointed Up By State’s Study.” New York Times, November 20, 1960.

[6] Hechinger, “The Heald Report: Controversies in Three Areas Are Pointed Up By State’s Study.”

[7] Benjamin and Hurd, 108.

[8] Leo Egan, “Rockefeller Bids State Show Way To Better World.” New York Times, January 2, 1959.

[9] Benjamin and Hurd, 113.

[10] Benjamin and Hurd, 114.

[11] Egan, “Rockefeller Bids State Show Way To Better World.”

[12] Benjamin and Hurd, 43.

[13] Benjamin and Hurd, 43.

[14] Benjamin and Hurd, 39.

[15] Benjamin and Hurd, 43.

[16] Benjamin and Hurd, 46.

[17] Benjamin and Hurd, 47.

[18] John H. Allan, “New York State Debt,” New York Times, April 2, 1972.

[19] Benjamin and Hurd, 47.

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