Was Reagan A Failure as President?

I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.

Ronald Reagan was the quintessential conservative, who many described as charismatic, wise and a bit of a jokester. At age 70, Ronald Reagan was the oldest person ever to be inaugurated U.S. president. His first term he seemed to fulfill the image. But then there is that 2nd unfortunate term, where he seemed to have several set-backs, including questions about his ability to govern the country. Well to be honest, he had an excuse, he did get shot in March 30, 1981 by John Hinkley Jr only 69 days into his presidency. Before the shootingReagan had the lowest approval ratings of any president during his first term in office. After the  shootingReagan’s approval ratings rose. The assassination attempt boosted his popularity and some may say that it helped him win his re-election campaign in 1984.

Ronald Reagan would see his survival as nothing short of divine intervention. He told this to his children Maureen and Michael, and also shared it with sources as diverse as Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Michael Deaver, Cardinal Terence Cooke, and the Rev. Louis Evans, his pastor at the National Presbyterian Church. When he got back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Reagan recorded that sentiment in his diary. “Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can,” he wrote. He was convinced that the Soviet Union was an evil entity that needed to be consigned to the ash-heap of history. It was a principal reason why he had sought the White House. Now, he made victory in the Cold War his overriding priority.

Soon after becoming president, Reagan gave a speech to a joint session of Congress, where he discussed his proposed tax cuts. He promised to eliminate 2 cabinet departments, but instead ended up adding another department, Veterans Affairs. He not only failed to cut the government in size, he increased the number of workers employed by the government. The federal budget also saw an increase from $678 billion in spending ($599 billion in revenue, deficit of $79 billion) to $1.1 Trillion in spending ($909 billion in revenue, deficit of $155 billion). Bill Clinton on the other hand cut government spending, but that story will be told at a later time.

During Jimmy Carter‘s last year in office (1980), inflation averaged 12.5%, compared with 4.4% during Reagan’s last year in office (1988). During Reagan’s administration, the unemployment rate declined from 7.5% to 5.4%, with the rate reaching highs of 10.8% in 1982 and 10.4% in 1983, averaging 7.5% over the eight years. Reagan implemented policies based on supply-side economics and advocated a classical liberal and laissez-faire philosophy, seeking to stimulate the economy with large, across-the-board tax cuts. He also supported returning the U.S. to some sort of gold standard, and successfully urged Congress to establish the U.S. Gold Commission to study how one could be implemented. Citing the economic theories of Arthur Laffer, Reagan promoted the proposed tax cuts as potentially stimulating the economy enough to expand the tax base, offsetting the revenue loss due to reduced rates of taxation, a theory that entered political discussion as the Laffer curve. Reaganomics was the subject of debate with supporters pointing to improvements in certain key economic indicators as evidence of success, and critics pointing to large increases in federal budget deficits and the national debt. His policy of “peace through strength” (also described as “firm but fair”) resulted in a record peacetime defense buildup including a 40% real increase in defense spending between 1981 and 1985.

During Reagan’s presidency, federal income tax rates were lowered significantly with the signing of the bipartisan Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 which lowered the top marginal tax bracket from 70% to 50% and the lowest bracket from 14% to 11%, however other tax increases passed by Congress and signed by Reagan, ensured that tax revenues over his two terms were 18.2% of GDP as compared to 18.1% over the 40-year period 1970-2010. Then, in 1982 the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 was signed into law, initiating one of the nation’s first public/private partnerships and a major part of the president’s job creation program. Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Labor and Chief of Staff, Al Angrisani, was a primary architect of the bill. The Tax Reform Act of 1986, another bipartisan effort championed by Reagan, further reduced the top rate to 28%, raised the bottom bracket from 11% to 15%, and, cut the number of tax brackets to 4.

Conversely, Congress passed and Reagan signed into law tax increases of some nature in every year from 1981 to 1987 to continue funding such government programs as Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA), Social Security, and the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 (DEFRA).[130][131] Despite the fact that TEFRA was the “largest peacetime tax increase in American history”, Reagan is better known for his tax cuts and lower-taxes philosophy. Real gross domestic product (GDP) growth recovered strongly after the early 1980s recession ended in 1982, and grew during his eight years in office at an annual rate of 3.85% per year. Unemployment peaked at 10.8% monthly rate in December 1982—higher than any time since the Great Depression—then dropped during the rest of Reagan’s presidency. Sixteen million new jobs were created, while inflation significantly decreased. The net effect of all Reagan-era tax bills was a 1% decrease in government revenues when compared to Treasury Department revenue estimates from the Administration’s first post-enactment January budgets. However, federal income tax receipts increased from 1980 to 1989, rising from $308.7 billion to $549 billion.

Reagan’s policies proposed that economic growth would occur when marginal tax rates were low enough to spur investment, which would then lead to increased economic growth, higher employment and wages. Critics labeled this “trickle-down economics“—the belief that tax policies that benefit the wealthy will create a “trickle-down” effect to the poor. Questions arose whether Reagan’s policies benefited the wealthy more than those living in poverty, and many poor and minority citizens viewed Reagan as indifferent to their struggles. These views were exacerbated by the fact that Reagan’s economic regimen included freezing the minimum wage at $3.35 an hour, slashing federal assistance to local governments by 60%, cutting the budget for public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies in half, and eliminating the antipoverty Community Development Block Grant program. The widening gap between the rich and poor had already begun during the 1970s before Reagan’s economic policies took effect. Along with Reagan’s 1981 cut in the top regular tax rate on unearned income, he reduced the maximum capital gains rate to only 20%. Reagan later set tax rates on capital gains at the same level as the rates on ordinary income like salaries and wages, with both topping out at 28%. Reagan is viewed as an antitax hero despite raising taxes eleven times over the course of his presidency, all in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Further following his less-government intervention views, Reagan cut the budgets of non-military programs including Medicaid, food stamps, federal education programs and the EPA.

While he protected entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, his administration attempted to purge many people with disabilities from the Social Security disability rolls. The administration’s stance toward the Savings and Loan industry contributed to the savings and loan crisis. It is also suggested, by a minority of Reaganomics critics, that the policies partially influenced the stock market crash of 1987, but there is no consensus regarding a single source for the crash. In order to cover newly spawned federal budget deficits, the United States borrowed heavily both domestically and abroad, raising the national debt from $997 billion to $2.85 trillion. Reagan described the new debt as the “greatest disappointment” of his presidency.

During his Presidency, Reagan pursued policies that reflected his personal belief in individual freedom, brought changes domestically, both to the U.S. economy and expanded military, and contributed to the end of the Cold War. Termed the Reagan Revolution, his presidency would reinvigorate American morale and reduce the people’s reliance upon government.

In summer 1981 PATCO, the union of federal air traffic controllers went on strike, violating a federal law prohibiting government unions from striking. Declaring the situation an emergency as described in the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, Reagan stated that if the air traffic controllers “do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated”. They did not return and on August 5, Reagan fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored his order, and used supervisors and military controllers to handle the nation’s commercial air traffic until new controllers could be hired and trained. As a leading reference work on public administration concluded, “The firing of PATCO employees not only demonstrated a clear resolve by the president to take control of the bureaucracy, but it also sent a clear message to the private sector that unions no longer needed to be feared.”

In 1981, Reagan became the first president to propose a constitutional amendment on school prayer. Reagan’s election reflected an opposition to the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale, prohibiting state officials from composing an official state prayer and requiring that it be recited in the public schools. Reagan’s 1981 proposed amendment stated: “Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any state to participate in prayer.” In 1984, Reagan again raised the issue, asking Congress “why can’t [the] freedom to acknowledge God be enjoyed again by children in every schoolroom across this land?” In 1985, Reagan expressed his disappointment that the Supreme Court ruling still bans a moment of silence for public schools, and said he had “an uphill battle.” In 1987 Reagan renewed his call for Congress to support voluntary prayer in schools and end “the expulsion of God from America’s classrooms.” Critics argue that any governmental imposition of prayer on public school students is involuntary. No Supreme Court rulings suggest that students cannot engage in silent prayer on their own. During his term in office, Reagan campaigned vigorously to restore organized prayer to the schools, first as a moment of prayer and later as a Moment of Silence.

The disintegration of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, proved a pivotal moment in Reagan’s presidency. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. On the night of the disaster, Reagan delivered a speech, written by Peggy Noonan.**

His presidency was one of relative peace, with the only blip on the screen was the minor invasion of the island of Grenada, to rescue some medical students and some American citizens. He was also instrumental in the dissolution of the Soviet Union into numerous republics. He started his campaign against the Soviet Union by escalating the Cold War, accelerating a reversal from the policy of détente which began in 1979 following the Soviet war in Afghanistan.[169] Reagan ordered a massive buildup of the United States Armed Forces and implemented new policies towards the Soviet Union: reviving the B-1 Lancer program that had been canceled by the Carter administration, and producing the MX missile. In response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, Reagan oversaw NATO‘s deployment of the Pershing missile in West Germany. In March 1983, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a defense project that would have used ground and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. Reagan believed that this defense shield could make nuclear war impossible, but disbelief that the technology could ever work led opponents to dub SDI “Star Wars” and argue that the technological objective was unattainable. The Soviets became concerned about the possible effects SDI would have; leader Yuri Andropov said it would put “the entire world in jeopardy”. For those reasons, David Gergen, former aide to President Reagan, believes that in retrospect, SDI hastened the end of the Cold War. He beat the Soviet Union by basically outspending them in defense spending and the fact that they were caught in a bottomless pit known as Afghanistan, which helped bankrupt the country. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down, the Cold War was officially declared over at the Malta Summit on December 3, 1989 and two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall in Photos: An Accident of History That ...

Known as the Great Communicator, he had a sense of humor that was legendary, and sometimes targeted on his own age. He is quoted to have said: “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency, even if I am in a Cabinet meeting.” Another time, he said, “To show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all 13 states.” But some incidents weren’t so funny. At a 1984 photo session at the president’s Santa Barbara ranch, a reporter called out a question about arms control. Reagan answered: “Well, we uh, well . . . I guess, uh, well, we uh . . .” His wife, Nancy, came to rescue, prompting him with a quiet, “We’re doing the best we can.”

Reagan’s opponent in the 1984 presidential election was former Vice President Walter Mondale. With questions about Reagan’s age, and a weak performance in the first presidential debate, his ability to perform the duties of president for another term was questioned. His apparent confused and forgetful behavior was evident to his supporters; they had previously known him clever and witty. Rumors began to circulate that he had Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan rebounded in the second debate, and confronted questions about his age, quipping, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”, which generated applause and laughter, even from Mondale himself. That November, Reagan was re-elected, winning 49 of 50 states. The president’s overwhelming victory saw Mondale carry only his home state of Minnesota (by 3800 votes) and the District of Columbia. Reagan won a record 525 electoral votes, the most of any candidate in United States history, and received 58.8% of the popular vote to Mondale’s 40.6%.

In 1985, news broke that the administration had supplied weapons to Iran for a hostage exchange, and millions of dollars plus guns were routed to right-wing “Contra” guerrillas in Nicaragua. On Nov. 13, 1986, Reagan testified before Congress, via video link from the Oval Office. Asked what he knew about Iran-Contra, he said, “I don’t recall; I don’t remember that; I had so many meetings every day that I can’t recall all of them.” Many wondered whether this was a cover-up, or whether Reagan really did forget. Reagan’s popularity declined from 67% to 46% in less than a week, the greatest and quickest decline ever for a president. The scandal resulted in fourteen indictments within Reagan’s staff, and eleven convictions.*** Reagan’s memory was a political issue even before he became president. His adversaries often claimed his tendency to forget names and make contradictory statements was a sign of dementia. Reagan tended to substitute terms such as “thing” for specific nouns, and favored using the same words repetitively. He used significantly fewer unique words in the years toward the end of his presidency, noted a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Oliver North's NRA appointment proves you can get away with ...

When Reagan left office in 1989, he held an approval rating of sixty-eight percent, matching those of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later Bill Clinton, as the highest ratings for departing presidents in the modern era.

President Ronald Reagan died of pneumonia, a complication of Alzheimer’s disease, on June 5, 2004, at his California home. A short time after his death, Nancy Reagan released a statement: “My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has died after 10 years of Alzheimer’s disease, at 93 years of age.” The president himself announced in 1994, after he had left office, that he had the condition. “I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. . . . At the moment, I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done.” But others say his dementia was apparent long before. “My father . . . floundered his way through his responses, fumbling with notes, uncharacteristically lost for words,” the president’s son Ron Reagan Jr., said of a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. “He looked tired, bewildered.” Lesley Stahl, former CBS White House correspondent, described meeting with the president in 1986: “Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly. . . . Oh, my, he’s gonzo, I thought.” Then, Reagan regained his alertness and Stahl thought, “I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile.” Though Alzheimer’s remains incurable, more now is known about the brain, especially the long-term impact of repeated concussions and lesser slights known as “sub-concussive blows.” *

Every serious G.O.P. presidential aspirant invokes the glorious era of Ronald Reagan as an ideal time that we must return to. I remember it a time of junk bonds, unsustainable investments and expense accounts. Paul Ryan and Rand Paul see as a time of increased bureaucracy and greater deficit spending, and should be seen as a complete failure. Especially his misplaced belief in trickle down economics. President Reagan as all presidents do have their ups and downs as a president. What separates him from many of our previous presidents is how he responded to adversity. Even in the worst of times he was able to unite the country, and restore pride in America. After the Contra affair his rating was at a all time low of 46% approval, when he left office his rating was at 68%. Pretty impressive. Because his presidency was quite complicated I am going to analyze it somewhat differently, I am going to include a pros and cons table in the addendum.****Where you can be the judge yourself.*****

So my take on Reagan, He accomplished a lot, he brought the country out of a recession, but overall his economic policy was a failure. It only created a bubble which eventually burst. He created more government, increased the deficit. He was instrumental in the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.

I have recently discovered another issue with the Regan presidency, due to the copious amount of information present on the matter, I included it in the addendum section. The issue I discovered was the Mental Health Crisis. President Reagan had little knowledge or concern for mental health. So as a result he had no problem in his effort to cut governmental spending and to balance the budget cut many of the programs in health care in regards to the care of mentally challenged individuals. Many of the cut-backs resulted in thousands of these individuals being discharged from facilities to the streets, because they had no alternate place to be transferred to. The states did not have the facilities to absorb them. This caused to the number of homeless people in America increase dramatically. Many of these individuals did not have the capacity turn their lives around. So after this new information came to light I am going to reduce his rating further from 3.5 to a 3.25.

(Update 3/26/2021)

Rating: 3.25 out of 5 stars


*As a youngster, Reagan had such poor eyesight that he was seated in the front row of class to see the board. When playing sports, he was often hit in the head by the ball he could not see. Once given eyeglasses, he said he was surprised to discover that “trees had leaves and butterflies existed.” But he didn’t wear the glasses while playing college football. His vision was limited to the square yard of turf occupied by the opposing team’s guard and he was often hit by unseen opposing players. In 1989, Reagan was thrown from a horse. A blood clot between the skull and brain was found, and neurosurgeons inserted a drain for a day to relieve pressure on the brain. An earlier blood clot on a different part of the brain that had healed on its own was disclosed by Reagan’s neurosurgeon. Did President Reagan actually have post-concussive syndrome, as has been recognized in professional athletes and military veterans? Did he have lingering Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and perhaps a genetic risk factor known as APOE4, worsening with age and seen in some cognitive disorders and Alzheimers? It’s impossible to know for certain. Another possibility, for the change in his mentation, could have been caused by the anesthesia administered during his emergency surgery after being shot by Hinkley Jr. Under certain circumstances it can cause an acceleration in the effects of dementia. I know this, because it happened to my mother. Prior to her heart surgery she was in early stages of dementia, with occasional periods of forgetfulness. We saw a rapid worsening of her mental status after the surgery.

**The shuttle’s launch had already been delayed twice, and the White House was insisting that it launch before the State of the Union address, so it took off on January 28, 1986. This particular launch was widely publicized because for the first time a civilian—a teacher named Christa McAuliffe—was traveling into space. The plan was to have McAuliffe communicate to students from space. According to the New York Times, nearly half of America’s school children aged nine to thirteen watched the event live in their classrooms. After a short seventy-three seconds into flight, the world was stunned when the shuttle burst into flames, killing all seven crew members on board. President Ronald Reagan cancelled his scheduled State of the Union address that evening and instead addressed the nation’s grief. In his book Great Speeches for Better Speaking, author Michael E. Eidenmuller describes the situation: “In addressing the American people on an event of national scope, Reagan would play the role of national eulogist. In that role, he would need to imbue the event with life-affirming meaning, praise the deceased, and manage a gamut of emotions accompanying this unforeseen and yet unaccounted-for disaster.

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster - HISTORY

As national eulogist, Reagan would have to offer redemptive hope to his audiences, and particularly to those most directly affected by the disaster. But Reagan would have to be more than just a eulogist. He would also have to be a U.S. President and carry it all with due presidential dignity befitting the office as well as the subject matter.”

The speech succeeded in meeting the emotional requirements of five audiences by carefully addressing each segment:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the State of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss. Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But, we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together. For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and, perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers. And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s take-off. I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them. I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program. And what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA, or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it. There’s a coincidence today. On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” Thank you.

***The greatest catastrophe of all was the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a junior National Security Council aide, orchestrated an arms sale to Iran in a futile bid to bargain for the release of American hostages, then delivered the proceeds to rebels seeking to overthrow Nicaragua’s government. When these illegal acts were revealed in November 1986, Reagan suffered a greater one-month plunge in public support (from 67 to 46 per cent) than any president before or since. But he bounced back. He appointed a presidential commission composed of people of unquestioned integrity and charged them to find out what had gone wrong. He ordered his administration to co-operate fully with the investigation, and made himself available for two long interviews. Within three months, the commission published a scathing critique, coupled with recommendations for restoring the NSC as the effective coordinator for foreign policy. Reagan went on national television to take “full responsibility” for the commission’s findings. And he immediately set about implementing its proposals. Under Frank Carlucci and his successor as national security adviser, Colin Powell, the NSC staff was reconstituted and its role clarified. Co-operation between agencies was restored. The organizational foundation was laid for the policy triumphs of Reagan’s final years. He left office with his popularity and credibility restored. Critical to this comeback was repairing the foreign policy machinery that had failed so disastrously. A strong NSC stood at the center. And the national security adviser was empowered by the president to serve as an honest broker of differences between the departments of state and defense. This set the pattern for how national security policy making would be managed in succeeding administrations.


Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1
Reagan’s charm, geniality, and ability to connect with average citizens as well as world leaders earned him the nickname “The Great Communicator.” Through his speeches and actions, Reagan restored the confidence of the American public in the office of the president. Decades after he left office, Reagan’s legacy remained strong with admirers wanting to add his portrait to Mount Rushmore and to US currency.

Reagan’s hands-off leadership style manifested into an inability to control his administration from potentially illegal activities, e.g. the “Iran-Contra” scandal. His “troika,” the nickname given to Chief of Staff James Baker, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, and Counselor Edwin Meese, made many of Reagan’s key administrative decisions for him.

Pro 2
On Oct. 2 1982, Reagan launched a “War on Drugs” that helped reduce the high rate of casual drug use lingering from the 1970s. He increased funding for the drug war from $1.5 billion in 1981 to $2.75 billion in 1986. Reagan also signed eight major Executive Orders related to crime and justice as well as five major crime bills: Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, National Narcotics Leadership Act of 1984, Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.

Con 2
In a Sep. 28, 1981 speech to the International Chiefs of Police, Reagan claimed that people who commit violent crimes “are not desperate people seeking bread for their families; crime is the way they’ve chosen to live.” This attitude failed to address the stark realities underlying crime, namely the national culture of poverty and discrimination. Violent crime nationwide increased 21% from 1981-1989. The “War on Drugs” wasted billions of dollars and escalated drug-related crime.

Pro 3
Reagan strengthened the weak, ineffectual, and vulnerable military which Carter left behind. The Reagan administration funded research and development of weapons systems, including stealth technology and precision weaponry, later used in both Persian Gulf wars. Reagan’s largest peacetime defense buildup in history, which included larger training ranges and military pay increases, helped invigorate the American military from its Vietnam War-era despondency.

Con 3
Reagan increased the defense budget for an unprecedented six consecutive years. This spending produced an unsustainable bubble in the defense industry that led to decades of restructuring. By the early 1990s the defense industry had too many factories and too many workers to support with its smaller budgets. For example, in the early 1980s there were 50 large defense suppliers to the US government. By 2004 there were five.

Pro 4
Reagan’s economic policies, such as a reduction in government spending and regulation and cuts in taxes, resulted in an unprecedented 92-month long economic boom, from Nov. 1982 to July 1990, with expansion and growth in the GDP (+36%), employment (+20 million jobs), and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (+15%).

Con 4
Reagan pledged during his 1980 campaign for president to balance the federal budget, but never submitted a balanced budget in his eight years in office. In 1981, the deficit was $79 billion and, in 1986, at the peak of his deficit spending, it stood at $221 billion. The federal debt was $994 billion when he took office in 1981 and grew to $2.9 trillion when his second term ended in 1989. Reagan also added more trade barriers than any other president since Hoover in 1930. US imports that were subject to some form of trade restraint increased from 12% in 1980 to 23% in 1988.

Pro 5
After “A Nation at Risk”, a negative report on the nation’s educational system, was released in Apr. 1983, President Reagan increased the budget for the Department of Education by $6 billion over the next three years. During the Reagan Administration, state education aid increased 20%, or almost $35 billion and, in 1988, it comprised a nearly 50% slice of revenue from all sources for education. Con 5
In his two terms in office, Reagan slashed federal aid to schools by more than $1 billion, and he cut the Department of Education budget by 19%. One of Reagan’s campaign promises was to abolish the Department of Education, which he considered a “bureaucratic boondoggle.” After intermittent attempts to fulfill this promise, he gave up in 1983 due to lack of Congressional support.

Pro 6
Between 1982 and 1988, Reagan signed 43 bills designating more than 10 million acres of federal wilderness areas in 27 states. This acreage accounted for nearly 10% of the National Wilderness Preservation System at the time. Reagan had signed more wilderness bills than any other president since the Wilderness Act was enacted in 1964.

Con 6

As a president who said “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” Reagan issued leases for oil, gas, and coal development on tens of millions of acres of national lands. Reagan’s appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Anne Gorsuch, tried to gut the 1972 Clean Water Act, cut EPA funding by 25%, and mismanaged a $1.6 billion program to clean up hazardous waste dumps.

Pro 7
Foreign Policy:
Reagan helped bring an end to the 46-year-old Cold War, through a combination of hostile, anti-communist rhetoric and a massive arms buildup followed by skillful diplomacy and disarmament. On Nov. 9, 1989, just over two years after his famous Brandenburg Gate speech, the Berlin Wall fell, marking the end of communism in Germany. On Dec. 15, 1991, after four bilateral summits with Reagan, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union.

Con 7
Foreign Policy:
Reagan broke his own vows not to make deals with terrorists or states that aided them. In the “Iran-Contra” scandal, Reagan’s administration bypassed congressional restrictions on aiding Nicaragua’s Contra guerilla fighters, in part by diverting money to them from the sale of missiles to Iran. Reagan also initiated military involvement in Libya, Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Lebanon.

Pro 8
On Apr. 7, 1986, Reagan signed the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) into law. As of Sep. 30, 2010, COBRA is still in effect and gives some workers who lose their health benefits, for example in situations such as job loss or reduction in hours worked, the right to choose to continue health benefits provided by their employer’s group health plan.

Con 8
Reagan almost completely ignored the growing AIDS epidemic. Although the first case of AIDS was discovered in the early 1980s, Reagan never publicly addressed the epidemic until May 31, 1987 when he spoke at an AIDS conference in Washington, DC. By that time, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease and 20,849 had died.

Pro 9
When Reagan followed through on his Aug. 3, 1981 threat to fire 12,176 striking air traffic controllers (PATCO), he held the controllers to their signed affidavit stating that they would not “participate [in any strike] while an employee of the Government of the United States.” Reagan brought in military air traffic controllers as replacements to ensure there was no disruption of a major public service. His actions helped curtail future frivolous strikes as they plummeted from an average of 300 each year in the decades before the PATCO strike to fewer than 30 in 2006.

Con 9
On Aug. 3, 1981, Reagan ordered 12,176 striking air traffic controllers (PATCO) back to their jobs, disregarding the workers’ complaints of stress, staff shortages, and outdated equipment. PATCO was one of the few unions that had endorsed Reagan in the 1980 election. Reagan repaid them by giving them only 48 hours to cancel the strike and banning them from federal service for life. The ban was not lifted until 1993 by President Bill Clinton.

Pro 10
Reagan was a big supporter of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). In his 1984 State of the Union Address, Reagan announced plans for what came to be the International Space Station. On Jan. 30, 1987, Reagan also announced that he planned to fund the building of the Superconducting Super Collider, a $4.5 billion dollar particle accelerator used for high energy physics research.

Con 10
Reagan’s over-ambitious space-based laser strategic defensive system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars,” proved to be too technically complex and expensive to complete. From its inception in 1983 to its demise in 1993, the program cost taxpayers $33 billion dollars.

Pro 11
Social Policy:
To “finally break the poverty trap,” as Reagan stated in his 1987 State of the Union Address, he signed the Family Support Act on Oct. 12, 1988. The Act required states to establish and operate a Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program (JOBS) to assure needy families with children obtain the training and employment necessary to avoid long-term welfare. Reagan also helped save Social Security by passing the Social Security Reform Act of 1983. It provided extra revenue dedicated to securing the solvent future of Social Security.

Con 11
Social Policy:
Reagan believed that widespread freeloading plagued welfare and social programs. As Reagan slashed spending in his first term on programs such as food stamps and subsidized housing, the poverty rate climbed from 12% to 15% and unemployment rose from 7% to 11%.

Pro 12
Through massive tax cuts, Reagan helped restore an economy that had both high inflation and unemployment left over from the 1970s. As he brought taxation down from 70% to 28%, Reagan proved that reducing excessive tax rates stimulates growth, increases economic activity, and boosts tax revenues. Government revenues from income tax rose from $244 billion in 1980 to $446 billion in 1989.

Con 12
Reagan’s “voodoo” economic policy, where tax cuts were believed to somehow generate tax revenues, failed to account for his administration’s excessive spending which increased from $591 billion in 1980 to $1.2 trillion in 1990. Reagan both increased and cut taxes. In 1980, middle-income families with children paid 8.2% in income taxes and 9.5% in payroll taxes. By 1988 their income tax was down to 6.6%, but payroll tax was up to 11.8%, a combined increase in taxes. Reagan pushed through Social Security tax increases of $165 billion over seven years.

Pro 13

Reagan helped to reduce inefficiencies in the federal bureaucracy. When Reagan took office, it took seven weeks to get a Social Security card and 43 days to get a passport. By the time he left office, both could be had in 10 days.

Con 13
Reagan opposed many important civil rights measures that further alienated him and the Republican Party from African-Americans. On Mar. 16, 1988, Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act. He was opposed to extending provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He initially opposed making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. He was also loyal to apartheid South Africa, considering that country a friend and ally.

21 Reasons Why Ronald Reagan Was a Terrible President:

1. Reagan Supplied Weapons to America’s Enemies

He armed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war despite the fact that it was widely known Iraq was using chemical weapons against civilian populations in violation of international law.

2. Reagan Ignored the Atrocities Committed by Saddam Hussein

Even after the whole world condemned Saddam Hussein for using chemical weapons to kill over 5,000 Kurdish civilians in Iraq, the Reagan administration continued to provide weapons and tactical information to Iraq. Iraq used this information to target its enemies with chemical weapons. Reagan even vetoed a UN resolution condemning Iraq.

3. Reagan Illegally Supplied Arms to Both Sides of the Iran-Iraq War

While he was supplying Iraq with weapons, Reagan also armed Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in direct violation of a U.S. law that he had signed.

4. Reagan Caved in to the Demands of Terrorists

After several Americans were taken hostage by terrorists in Lebanon, Reagan provided weapons to Iran in exchange for their release. Despite this concession, ultimately more hostages were taken.

5. Reagan Caved in to the Demands of Terrorists Again

After Reagan sent Marines to Beirut for a peacekeeping mission, a terrorist’s truck bomb killed 241 U.S. Marines. Reagan responded by immediately doing exactly what the terrorists wanted, pulling all the troops out of Beirut.

6. Reagan Was Weak in the War on Terrorism

After the bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Reagan promised to track down and punish the terrorists who committed that horrible act. He never followed up on that promise.

7. Reagan Didn’t Obey His Own Laws

He illegally supplied weapons to Nicaraguan rebels in violation of a law that he himself had signed.

8. Reagan Supported the Violent Overthrow of a Democratically Elected Government

He illegally supported the Nicaraguan Contras, whom he called “Freedom Fighters,” despite the fact that they killed civilians and wanted to overthrow the democratically elected government to restore the dictatorship that previously existed in Nicaragua.

9. Reagan Started an Unnecessary War to Divert Attention From His Failure in Beirut

Just days after the bombing that killed 241 Marines in Beirut, Reagan launched an attack on the island of Grenada to remove Cuban soldiers there. This successfully took attention away from the devastating loss of those Marines in Beirut.

10. Reagan Failed to Defend US From Saddam Hussein

When an Iraqi fighter jet fired a missile into a U.S. Navy ship in 1987, killing 37 men, Reagan did nothing in response to the attack. Iraq is still the only non-allied country to attack a U.S. warship without retaliation.

11. Reagan Helped Create Al Qaeda

The Reagan administration armed and supported the Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan. Many members of the Mujahideen, like Osama bin Laden, used their experience in Afghanistan to help them form the terrorist organization Al Qaeda.

12. Reagan Supported the Racist Apartheid Government in South Africa

When the white minority in South Africa (just 10% of the population) brutally repressed the black majority, even denying them the right to vote, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 to apply pressure to South Africa to end Apartheid. But President Reagan opposed any sanctions on South Africa and vetoed that bill. Congress was forced to override his veto.

13. Reagan Supported the Most Brutal Dictators in the World as Long as He Didn’t Consider Them “Communists”

  • He supported Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Later, when Noriega became too close with Fidel Castro, we suddenly considered him an enemy and removed him from power.
  • He supported Saddam Hussein when he committed the most brutal atrocities on Earth, killing thousands of his own people. Years later, when Saddam threatened our oil supply, we used these same atrocities as reasons to go to war with him.
  • He supported Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos even after Marcos killed his political rival and rigged his own reelection.
  • He supported the brutal regime in El Salvador when it was widely known that they were killing civilians, including Americans. After four American nuns were murdered by Salvadorian soldiers, Reagan’s Secretary of State defended the Salvadorians, suggesting that the nuns might have been shot while trying to run a military roadblock—but this wouldn’t explain why they were also raped before they were killed.

14. Reagan’s Administration Had More Documented Corruption Than Any President in U.S. History

At least 138 Reagan administration officials, including several cabinet members, were investigated for, indicted for, or convicted of crimes. This is the largest number of any U.S. President. Many of them were pardoned by Reagan or President Bush before they could even stand trial.

  • Secretary of the Interior James Watt —Indicted on 21 felonies
  • Attorney General Edwin Meese —Resigned after investigations of corruption
  • Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger—Charged with Iran-Contra crimes and pardoned before going to trial
  • Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams—Plea bargained for Iran-Contra crimes and pardoned by President Bush
  • Two National Security Advisors Robert MacFarlane and John Poindexter—Pleaded guilty to Iran-Contra crimes and were pardoned
  • Three high ranking CIA officials, Alan Fiers, Clair George, and Joseph Fernandez —Convicted and pardoned for Iran-Contra crimes
  • At least nine Reagan appointees were convicted of perjury, lying to Congress, obstruction of Congress, or contempt of Congress.

15. Reagan Frequently Repeated Bald-Faced Lies Even After They Were Publicly Revealed to Be Untrue

  • He told stories about having been a U.S. Army photographer assigned to film Nazi death camps. Reagan never visited or filmed any such camps.
  • He often told a story about a “Chicago Welfare Queen” who had 80 aliases and gotten $150,000 in welfare. She never existed but investigators did find one woman who had two aliases and received $8,000. Still, Reagan continued to tell the false version of the story.
  • He claimed that trees create more pollution than automobiles, an absurdly untrue statement that he literally pulled out of thin air.

16. Reagan Set Records for Budget Deficits

After criticizing President Carter for having a $50 billion deficit, Reagan’s own deficits exceeded $200 billion. He tripled the national debt in only eight years. Although Republicans blamed Congress for the deficits, all eight of the budgets Congress passed had less spending and smaller deficits than the budgets proposed by Reagan.

17. Reagan’s Economic Policies Put Millions of Americans out of Work

When he took office in 1981, unemployment was at 7.5% and dropping. A few months after his economic policies took effect, unemployment began to rise again. Millions of people continued to lose their jobs for the next two years until unemployment exceeded 10%. It stayed above 10% for nearly a year, peaking at 10.8%. Three years after he was elected, unemployment was still higher than when he was sworn in.

18. Reagan’s Policies Allowed Hundreds of Thousands of Family Farms to Go out of Business or Declare Bankruptcy

By some accounts, nearly one third of all farms were at risk of being foreclosed during the 1980’s. Reagan vetoed a farm credit bill that would have given farmers some relief. His popularity among farmers dropped so low that at one point when discussing the exportation of grain to other countries, Reagan joked that he would like to “keep the grain and export the farmers.”

19. Reagan’s Financial Policies Caused the Savings and Loan Industry to Collapse

The financial deregulation and changes to the tax code that President Reagan enacted ultimately caused nearly 750 different financial institutions to fail. This cost taxpayers about $150 billion.

20. Reagan Robbed the Social Security Trust Fund to Pay for His Budget Shortfalls

After Reagan cut taxes for the rich, the tax revenue to fund the government was so small that the budget deficit grew to four times what it had been under Jimmy Carter. So Reagan “borrowed” hundreds of billions of dollars from the Social Security trust fund to pay the country’s bills. That money has never been paid back.

21. Reagan Largely Ignored the AIDS Epidemic while Tens of Thousands of People Were Dying of the Disease

Many conservatives in the 1980s believed that AIDS was God’s punishment for being gay. Ronald Reagan did not publicly talk about AIDS until the 6th year of his presidency. In 1986, when AIDS fatalities were doubling every year, Reagan proposed cuts in funding for AIDS research.

22. Ronald Reagan and the Federal Deinstitutionalization of Mentally Ill Patients

(Update 3/26/2021)

The lack of institutional care of critically mentally ill patients in the United States has become a complicated problem that has resulted in victimization, homelessness, and incarceration of these individuals. In 1967, the State of California was one of the first states to deinstitutionalize mentally ill patients when it passed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. This act had a profoundly negative impact on the lives of the mentally ill. So, why would the Reagan Administration choose to end “the federal government’s role in providing services to the mentally ill”?

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, is well known for his fiscal policies that stimulated economic growth, cut inflation and pulled America out of a recession. What Reagan is not readily known for is the long term effect of a law he repealed that essentially deinstitutionalized mentally ill patients at the federal level. While some of his fiscal policies had a positive effect on the U.S. economy during the 1980s, his decision to deinstitutionalize mentally ill patients had a much more deleterious effect on these patients, their communities, and the agencies that were left to contend with these individuals’ mental health issues.

The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) is the statute that repealed President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act which was supposed to continue federal funding for mental health programs. Reagan gave the appearance of making a consequentialist ethical decision because he presented his repeal of OBRA as an action that would best serve American society and do more good than harm as a result. The OBRA gave mental patients a choice to seek treatment outside of a mental institution, an option to seek treatment at clinics at the state level, and the freedom to administer their own medication.  However, Reagan was hasty in taking unsound advice to repeal OBRA because his real motive was to cut the federal budget.  He was a leader who “never exhibited any interest in the need for research or better treatment for serious mental illness”.

To be an ethical leader, one must attempt to gather as much knowledge as possible when making decisions, especially if one has the power to affect so many lives. The mentally ill are amongst the most vulnerable populations in society because most are unable to make sound decisions regarding their own care due to their mental state. The consequences of Reagan’s social policy can be measured by the fact that today one-third of the homeless population are suffering from severe mental illness which puts a burden on police departments, hospitals and the penal system which lack the training and resources to deal with psychiatric emergencies. Reagan’s unethical choice to end federal funding for mental health programs was driven by the desire to cut the budget. As a result, he did much more harm than good.

Reagan Had a troubling Record in Regards to Mental Health Institutions

(Update 3/26/2021)

In  November 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan overwhelmingly defeated Jimmy Carter, who received less than 42% of the popular vote, for president. One month prior to the election, President Carter had signed the Mental Health Systems Act, which had proposed to continue the federal community mental health centers program, although with some additional state involvement. Consistent with the report of the Carter Commission, the act also included a provision for federal grants “for projects for the prevention of mental illness and the promotion of positive mental health,” an indication of how little learning had taken place among the Carter Commission members and professionals at NIMH. With President Reagan and the Republicans taking over, the Mental Health Systems Act was discarded before the ink had dried and the CMHC funds were simply block granted to the states. 

President Reagan never understood mental illness. Like Richard Nixon, he was a product of the Southern California culture that associated psychiatry with Communism. Two months after taking office, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, a young man with untreated schizophrenia. Two years later, Reagan called Dr. Roger Peele, then director of St. Elizabeths Hospital, where Hinckley was being treated, and tried to arrange to meet with Hinckley, so that Reagan could forgive him. Peele tactfully told the president that this was not a good idea. Reagan was also exposed to the consequences of untreated mental illness through the two sons of Roy Miller, his personal tax advisor. Both sons developed schizophrenia; one committed suicide in 1981, and the other killed his mother in 1983. Despite such personal exposure, Reagan never exhibited any interest in the need for research or better treatment for serious mental illness.

California has traditionally been on the cutting edge of American cultural developments, with Anaheim and Modesto experiencing changes before Atlanta and Moline. This was also true in the exodus of patients from state psychiatric hospitals. Beginning in the late 1950s, California became the national leader in aggressively moving patients from state hospitals to nursing homes and board-and-care homes, known in other states by names such as group homes, boarding homes, adult care homes, family care homes, assisted living facilities, community residential facilities, adult foster homes, transitional living facilities, and residential care facilities. Hospital wards closed as the patients left. By the time Ronald Reagan assumed the governorship in 1967, California had already deinstitutionalized more than half of its state hospital patients. That same year, California passed the landmark Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act, which virtually abolished involuntary hospitalization except in extreme cases. Thus, by the early 1970s California had moved most mentally ill patients out of its state hospitals and, by passing LPS, had made it very difficult to get them back into a hospital if they relapsed and needed additional care. California thus became a canary in the coal mine of deinstitutionalization.

By 1975 board-and-care homes had become big business in California. In Los Angeles alone, there were “approximately 11,000 ex-state-hospital patients living in board-and-care facilities.” Many of these homes were owned by for-profit chains, such as Beverly Enterprises, which owned 38 homes. Many homes were regarded by their owners “solely as a business, squeezing excessive profits out of it at the expense of residents.” Five members of Beverly Enterprises’ board of directors had ties to Governor Reagan; the chairman was vice chairman of a Reagan fundraising dinner, and “four others were either politically active in one or both of the Reagan [gubernatorial] campaigns and/or contributed large or undisclosed sums of money to the campaign.” Financial ties between the governor, who was emptying state hospitals, and business persons who were profiting from the process would also soon become apparent in other states.

Many of the board-and-care homes in California, as elsewhere, were clustered in city areas that were rundown and thus had low rents. In San Jose, for example, approximately 1,800 patients discharged from nearby Agnews State Hospital were placed in homes clustered near the campus of San Jose State University. As early as 1971 the local newspaper decried this “mass invasion of mental patients.” Some patients left their board-and-care homes because of the poor living conditions, whereas others were evicted when the symptoms of their illness recurred because they were not receiving medication, but both scenarios resulted in homelessness. By 1973 the San Jose area was described as having “discharged patients…living in skid row…wandering aimlessly in the streets . . . a ghetto for the mentally ill and mentally retarded.”

Similar communities were becoming visible in other California cities as well as in New York. In Long Beach on Long Island, old motels and hotels were filled with patients discharged from nearly Creedmore and Pilgrim State Hospitals. By 1973, community residents were complaining that their town was becoming a psychiatric ghetto; at the local Catholic church, patients were said to “have urinated on the floor during Mass and eaten the altar flowers.” The Long Beach City Council therefore passed an ordinance requiring patients to take their prescribed medication as a condition for living there. Predictably, the New York Civil Liberties Union immediately challenged the ordinance as being unconstitutional, and it was so ruled. By this time, there were about 5,000 board-and-care homes in New York City, some with as many as 285 beds and with up to 85% of their residents having been discharged from the state hospitals. As one New York psychiatrist summarized the situation: “The chronic mentally ill patient has had his locus of living and care transferred from a single lousy institution to multiple wretched ones.”

California was the first state to witness not only an increase in homelessness associated with deinstitutionalization but also an increase in incarceration and episodes of violence. In 1972 Marc Abramson, another young psychiatrist working for San Mateo County, published a landmark paper entitled “The Criminalization of Mentally Disordered Behavior.” Abramson claimed that because the new LPS statute made it difficult to get patients admitted to a psychiatric hospital, police “regard arrest and booking into jail as a more reliable way of securing involuntary detention of mentally disordered persons.” Abramson quoted a California prison psychiatrist who claimed to be “literally drowning in patients. . . . Many more men are being sent to prison who have serious mental problems.” Abramson’s paper was the first clear description of the increase of mentally ill persons in jails and prisons, an increase that would grow markedly in subsequent years.

By the mid-1970s, studies in some states suggested that about 5% of jail inmates were seriously mentally ill. A study of five California county jails reported that 6.7% of the inmates were psychotic. A study of the Denver County Jail reported that 5% of prisoners had a “functional psychosis.” Such figures contrasted with studies from the 1930s that had reported less than 2% of jail inmates as being seriously mentally ill. In 1973 the jail in Santa Clara County, which included San Jose, “created a special ward…to house just the individuals who have such a mental condition”; this was apparently the first county jail to create a special mental illness unit.

Given the increasing number of seriously mentally ill individuals living in the community in California by the mid-1970s, it is not surprising to find that they were impacting the tasks of police officers. A study of 301 patients discharged from Napa State Hospital between 1972 and 1975 found that 41% of them had been arrested. According to the study, “patients who entered the hospital without a criminal record were subsequently arrested about three times as often as the average citizen.” Significantly, the majority of these patients had received no aftercare following their hospital discharge. By this time, police in other states were also beginning to feel the burden of the discharged, but often untreated, mentally ill individuals. In suburban Philadelphia, for example, “mental-illness-related incidents increased 227.6% from 1975 to 1979, whereas felonies increased only 5.6%.”


Until the 1980s, most people in the United States were unaware that the deinstitutionalization of patients from state mental hospitals was going terribly wrong. Some were aware that homicides and other untoward things were happening in California, but such things were to be expected, because it was, after all, California. President Carter’s Commission on Mental Health issued its 1978 report and recommended doing more of the same things—more CMHCs, more prevention of mental illness, and more federal spending. The report gave no indication of a pending crisis. The majority of patients who had been discharged from state hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s had gone to their own homes, nursing homes, or board-and-care homes; they were, therefore, out of sight and out of mind.

In the 1980s, this all changed. Deinstitutionalization became, for the first time, a topic of national concern. The beginning of the discussion was heralded by a 1981 editorial in the New York Times that labeled deinstitutionalization “a cruel embarrassment, a reform gone terribly wrong.” Three years later, the paper added: “The policy that led to the release of most of the nation’s mentally ill patients from the hospital to the community is now widely regarded as a major failure.” During the following decade, there were increasing concerns publicly expressed about mentally ill individuals in nursing homes, board-and-care homes, and jails and prisons. There were also periodic headlines announcing additional high-profile homicides committed by individuals who were clearly psychotic. But the one issue that took center stage in the 1980s, and directed public attention to deinstitutionalization, was the problem of mentally ill homeless persons.

During the 1980s, an additional 40,000 beds in state mental hospitals were shut down. The patients being sent to community facilities were no longer those who were moderately well-functioning or elderly; rather, they included the more difficult, chronic patients from the hospitals’ back wards. These patients were often younger than patients previously discharged, less likely to respond to medication, and less likely to be aware of their need for medication. In 1988 the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) issued estimates of where patients with chronic mental illness were living. Approximately 120,000 were said to be still hospitalized; 381,000 were in nursing homes; between 175,000 and 300,000 were living in board-and-care homes; and between 125,000 and 300,000 were thought to be homeless. These broad estimates for those living in board-and-care homes and on the streets suggested that neither NIMH nor anyone else really knew how many there were.


Until the 1980s, most people in the United States were unaware that the deinstitutionalization of patients from state mental hospitals was going terribly wrong. Some were aware that homicides and other untoward things were happening in California, but such things were to be expected, because it was, after all, California. President Carter’s Commission on Mental Health issued its 1978 report and recommended doing more of the same things—more CMHCs, more prevention of mental illness, and more federal spending. The report gave no indication of a pending crisis. The majority of patients who had been discharged from state hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s had gone to their own homes, nursing homes, or board-and-care homes; they were, therefore, out of sight and out of mind.

In the 1980s, this all changed. Deinstitutionalization became, for the first time, a topic of national concern. The beginning of the discussion was heralded by a 1981 editorial in the New York Times that labeled deinstitutionalization “a cruel embarrassment, a reform gone terribly wrong.” Three years later, the paper added: “The policy that led to the release of most of the nation’s mentally ill patients from the hospital to the community is now widely regarded as a major failure.” During the following decade, there were increasing concerns publicly expressed about mentally ill individuals in nursing homes, board-and-care homes, and jails and prisons. There were also periodic headlines announcing additional high-profile homicides committed by individuals who were clearly psychotic. But the one issue that took center stage in the 1980s, and directed public attention to deinstitutionalization, was the problem of mentally ill homeless persons.

During the 1980s, an additional 40,000 beds in state mental hospitals were shut down. The patients being sent to community facilities were no longer those who were moderately well-functioning or elderly; rather, they included the more difficult, chronic patients from the hospitals’ back wards. These patients were often younger than patients previously discharged, less likely to respond to medication, and less likely to be aware of their need for medication. In 1988 the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) issued estimates of where patients with chronic mental illness were living. Approximately 120,000 were said to be still hospitalized; 381,000 were in nursing homes; between 175,000 and 300,000 were living in board-and-care homes; and between 125,000 and 300,000 were thought to be homeless. These broad estimates for those living in board-and-care homes and on the streets suggested that neither NIMH nor anyone else really knew how many there were.

Sociologist Andrew Scull in 1981 summarized the economics of the board-and-care industry: “The logic of the marketplace suffices to ensure that the operators have every incentive to warehouse their charges as cheaply as possible, since the volume of profit is inversely proportional to the amount expended on the inmates.” In addition, because many board-and-care homes were in crime-ridden neighborhoods, mentally ill individuals living in them were often victimized when they went outside. A 1984 study of 278 patients living in board-and-care homes in Los Angeles reported that one-third “reported being robbed and/or assaulted during the preceding year.”

The problems of mentally ill individuals in nursing homes and board-and-care homes rarely elicited media attention in the 1980s. By contrast, the problem of homeless persons, including the mentally ill homeless, became a major story. In Washington, Mitch Snyder and the National Coalition for the Homeless burst onto the national scene by staging hunger strikes and sleep-ins on sidewalk grates. Their message was that homeless persons are just like you and me and all they need is a house and a job. Snyder challenged President Reagan, accusing him of being the main cause of homelessness, and the media extensively covered the controversy. By the time Snyder committed suicide in 1990, homelessness had become a major topic of national discussion.

Despite the claims of homeless advocates, media attention directed to homeless persons made it increasingly clear that many of them were, in fact, seriously mentally ill. In 1981, Life magazine ran a story titled “Emptying the Madhouse: The Mentally Ill Have Become Our Cities’ Lost Souls.” In 1982, Rebecca Smith froze to death in a cardboard box on the streets of New York; the media focused on her death because it was said that she had been valedictorian of her college class before becoming mentally ill. In 1983, the media covered the story of Lionel Aldridge, the former all-pro linebacker for the Green Bay Packers; after developing schizophrenia, he had been homeless for several years on the streets of Milwaukee. In 1984, a study from Boston reported that 38% of homeless persons in Boston were seriously mentally ill. The report was titled “Is Homelessness a Mental Health Problem?” and confirmed what people were increasingly beginning to suspect—that many homeless persons had previously been patients in the state mental hospitals.

Despite the claims of homeless advocates, media attention directed to homeless persons made it increasingly clear that many of them were, in fact, seriously mentally ill. In 1981, Life magazine ran a story titled “Emptying the Madhouse: The Mentally Ill Have Become Our Cities’ Lost Souls.” In 1982, Rebecca Smith froze to death in a cardboard box on the streets of New York; the media focused on her death because it was said that she had been valedictorian of her college class before becoming mentally ill. In 1983, the media covered the story of Lionel Aldridge, the former all-pro linebacker for the Green Bay Packers; after developing schizophrenia, he had been homeless for several years on the streets of Milwaukee. In 1984, a study from Boston reported that 38% of homeless persons in Boston were seriously mentally ill. The report was titled “Is Homelessness a Mental Health Problem?” and confirmed what people were increasingly beginning to suspect—that many homeless persons had previously been patients in the state mental hospitals.

At the same time that mentally ill homeless persons were becoming an object of national concern during the 1980s, the number of mentally ill persons in jails and prisons was also increasing.

Amid the various studies, disturbing trends were evident. Among 132 patients discharged from Columbus State Hospital in Ohio, 17% were arrested within 6 months. In California, seriously mentally ill individuals with a history of past violence, including armed robbery and murder, were being discharged from mental hospitals without any planned aftercare. In Colorado in 1984, George Wooton, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was booked into the Denver County Jail for the hundredth time; he would be the first prominent member of a group that would become widely known as “frequent flyers.” In several states the bizarre behavior of mentally ill inmates was also becoming problematic for jail personnel; in Montana a man “tried to drown himself in the jail toilet,” and in California inmates tried to escape “by smearing themselves with their own feces and flushing themselves down the toilet.” To make matters worse, civil liberties lawyers frequently defended the rights of mentally ill prisoners to refuse medication and remain psychotic. At a 1985 commitment hearing in Wisconsin, for example, a public defender argued that his jailed mentally ill client, who had been observed eating his feces, “was in no imminent danger of physical injury or dying” and should therefore be released; the judge agreed.

As more and more mentally ill individuals entered the criminal justice system in the 1980s, local police and sheriffs’ departments were increasingly affected. In New York City, calls associated with “emotionally disturbed persons,” referred to as “EDPs,” increased from 20,843 in 1980 to 46,845 in 1988, and “experts say similar increases have occurred in other large cities.” Many such calls required major deployments of police resources. The rescue of a mentally ill man from the top of a tower on Staten Island, for example, “required at least 20 police officers and supervisors, half a dozen emergency vehicles, several highway units and a helicopter.” In an attempt to deal with these psychiatric emergencies, the police department in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988 created the first specially trained police Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, as it would become known as it was replicated in other cities.

Finally, the 1980s witnessed increasing episodes of violence, including homicides, committed by mentally ill individuals who were not receiving treatment. The decade began ominously with three high-profile shootings between March 1980 and March 1981. Former congressman Allard Lowenstein was killed by Dennis Sweeney, John Lennon was killed by Mark David Chapman, and President Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley. All three perpetrators had untreated schizophrenia. Sweeney, for example, believed that Lowenstein, his former mentor, had implanted a transmitter in his teeth through which he was sending harassing voices.

Another indication that such episodes of violence were increasing was a study that compared admissions to a New York state psychiatric hospital in 1975 and 1982. It reported that “the percentage of patients who had committed violence toward persons while living in the community in the 1982 cohort was nearly double the percentage in the 1975 cohort.” In addition, “the percentage of patients who had had encounters with the criminal justice system in the 1982 cohort was more than quadruple the percentage in the 1975 cohort.”

Is there any way to estimate the frequency of these episodes of violence committed by mentally ill person who were not being treated? There was then, and continues to be, no national database that tracks homicides committed by mentally ill persons. However, a small study published in 1988 provided a clue. In Contra Costa County, California, all 71 homicides committed between 1978 and 1980 were examined. Seven of the 71 homicides were found to have been done by individuals with schizophrenia, all of whom had been previously hospitalized at some point before the crime. The 10% rate was also consistent with the findings of another small study in Albany County, New York. Therefore, by the late 1980s, it appeared that violent acts committed by untreated mentally ill persons was one of the consequences of the deinstitutionalization movement, and the problem appeared to be a growing one.

Deinstitutionalization of Mental Health: A History

(Update 3/26/2021)

1833 Worcester State Hospital opens in Massachusetts as the first mental hospital fully supported by state funds.

Worcester State Asylum in Worcester, Massachusetts, dated 1905.
Worcester State Asylum in Worcester, Massachusetts, dated 1905. (Wikimedia Commons)

1860 Twenty-eight of the 33 existing U.S. states have state psychiatric hospitals.

1939-1945 During World War II conscientious objectors enter state psychiatric hospitals to replace doctors who were sent away for the war effort.

1946 Life Magazine publishes photos depicting the horrors inside the hospitals.

1954 Chlorpromazine, marketed as Thorazine, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s the first anti-psychotic drug widely used to treat the symptoms of mental illness. For many, it brought hope that some patients could live among the community.

"Bedlam 1946" spread from Life Magazine.
‘Bedlam 1946’ spread from Life Magazine. (The Jerry Cooke Archives)

1955 The number of patients inside public mental hospitals nationwide peaks at 560,000.

1959 The number of patients in California state mental hospitals peaks at 37,000.

President John. F. Kennedy
President John. F. Kennedy (Library of Congress)

1963 President John F. Kennedy signs the Community Mental Health Act. This pushes the responsibility of mentally ill patients from the state toward the federal government. JFK wanted to create a network of community mental health centers where mentally ill people could live in the community while receiving care. JFK could have been inspired to act because his younger sister, Rosemary, was mentally disabled, received a lobotomy and spent her life hidden away. 

Less than a month after signing the new legislation, JFK is assassinated. He doesn’t see the plan through. The community mental health centers never receive stable funding, and even 15 years later less than half the promised centers are built.

The Community Mental Health Act of 1963.
The Community Mental Health Act of 1963.

1965 The U.S. Congress establishes Medicaid and Medicare. Mentally disabled people living in the community are eligible for benefits but those in psychiatric hospitals are excluded. By encouraging patients to be discharged, state legislators could shift the cost of care for mentally ill patients to the federal government.

1967 Ronald Reagan is elected governor of California. At this point, the number of patients in state hospitals had fallen to 22,000, and the Reagan administration uses the decline as a reason to make cuts to the Department of Mental Hygiene. They cut 2,600 jobs and 10 percent of the budget despite reports showing that hospitals were already below recommended staffing levels.

1967 Reagan signs the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act and ends the practice of institutionalizing patients against their will, or for indefinite amounts of time. This law is regarded by some as a “patient’s bill of rights”.  Sadly, the care outside state hospitals was inadequate. The year after the law goes into effect, a study shows the number of mentally ill people entering San Mateo’s criminal justice system doubles.

1969 Reagan reverses earlier budget cuts. He increases spending on the Department of Mental Hygiene by a record $28 million.

1973 The number of patients in California State mental hospitals falls to 7,000.

1980 President Jimmy Carter signs the Mental Health Systems Act to improve on Kennedy’s dream.

President Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan (Library of Congress)

1981 President Reagan repeals Carter’s legislation with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. This pushes the responsibility of mentally ill patients back to the states. The legislation creates block grants for the states, but federal spending on mental illness declines.

2004 The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 10 percent of state prisoners have symptoms that meet criteria for a psychotic disorder.

2015 In the San Francisco Homeless Count, 55 percent of people experiencing chronic homelessness report they have emotional or psychiatric conditions.

Would Reaganomics Work Today?

Reaganomics is President Ronald Reagan’s conservative economic policy that attacked the 1981-1982 recession and stagflation. Stagflation is an economic contraction combined with double-digit inflation.

Reagan’s position was dramatically different from the status quo. Prior presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had expanded the government’s role. Reagan pledged to make cuts in four areas:

  1. The growth of government spending
  2. Both income taxes and capital gains taxes
  3. Regulations on businesses
  4. The expansion of the money supply

What Reaganomics Is

Reaganomics is based on the Laffer Curve. Economist Arthur Laffer developed it in 1974. The curve showed how tax cuts could stimulate the economy to the point where the tax base expanded.

Tax cuts reduce the level of federal taxation immediately. These same cuts have a multiplier effect on economic growth. Tax cuts put money in consumers’ pockets, which they spend. That stimulates business growth and more hiring. The result? A larger tax base.

Reaganomics is consistent with the theory of supply-side economics. It states that corporate tax cuts are the best way to grow the economy. When companies get more cash, they should hire new workers and expand their businesses. It also says that income tax cuts give workers more incentive to work, increasing the supply of labor. That’s why it’s sometimes called trickle-down economics

Key Takeaways

  • Reagan’s economic policies were nicknamed Reaganomics
  • They were based on supply-side economics which prioritized tax cuts
  • Reaganomics reduced tax rates, unemployment, and regulations
  • Inflation was lowered through monetary policy
  • Reaganomics worked in the 1980s because it lowered record-high taxes

Did It Work?

President Reagan delivered on each of his four major policy objectives, although not to the extent that he and his supporters had hoped. That’s according to William A. Niskanen, a founder of Reaganomics. Niskanen belonged to Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1981 to 1985. Inflation was tamed, but it was thanks to monetary policy, not fiscal policy. Reagan’s tax cuts did end the recession.​

But government spending wasn’t lowered. It just shifted from domestic programs to defense. The result? The federal debt almost tripled, from $998 billion in 1981 to $2.857 trillion in 1989.

Tax Cuts

Reagan cut tax rates enough to stimulate consumer demand. By Reagan’s last year in office, the top income tax rate was 28% for single people making $18,550 or more. Anyone making less paid no taxes at all. That was much less than the 1980 top tax rate of 70% for individuals earning $108,300 or more. Reagan indexed the tax brackets for inflation.

Reagan offset these tax cuts with tax increases elsewhere. He raised Social Security payroll taxes and some excise taxes. He also cut several deductions.

Reagan cut the corporate tax rate from 46% to 40% in 1987. But the effect of this break was unclear. Reagan changed the tax treatment of many new investments. The complexity meant that the overall results of his corporate tax changes couldn’t be measured.

Slow Spending Growth

Government spending still grew, just not as fast as under President Jimmy Carter. Reagan increased spending by 9% a year, from $678 billion at Carter’s final budget in Fiscal Year 1981 to $1.1 trillion at Reagan’s last budget for FY 1989. Carter increased spending by 16% a year, from $409 billion in FY 1977 to $678 billion in FY 1981.

Under Reagan, defense spending grew faster than general spending. Military spending increased 11% a year, from $154 billion in FY 1981 to $295 billion in FY 1989.

Reagan made minor cuts to other discretionary programs in his first few budgets. These included the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Interior, and Transportation. Reagan did not cut Social Security or Medicare payments since they were protected by the acts that created them.

Reduce Regulations

In 1981, Reagan eliminated the Nixon-era price controls on domestic oil and gas. They constrained the free-market equilibrium that would have prevented inflation. Reagan also deregulated cable TV, long-distance telephone service, interstate bus service, and ocean shipping. He eased bank regulations, but that helped create the Savings and Loan Crisis in 1989.

Reagan increased, not decreased, import barriers. He doubled the number of items that were subject to trade restraint from 12% in 1980 to 23% in 1988.4 He did little to reduce other regulations affecting health, safety, and the environment. Carter had reduced regulations at a faster pace.

Tame Inflation

Reagan had campaigned on ending galloping inflation. That’s when inflation rates reach 10% or more. In 1980 the inflation rate was 12.5%. These rates hurt the economy because money loses value too fast. Business and employee income can’t keep up with rising costs and prices.

Galloping inflation was already being addressed by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. He used contractionary monetary policy, despite the potential for a recession. In 1979, Volcker began raising the fed funds rate. By December 1980, it had reached 20%.

These high rates choked off economic growth. Volcker’s policy triggered the recession of 1981-1982. Unemployment rose to 10.1% and stayed above 10% for 10 months. This painful solution was necessary to stop galloping inflation. Had inflation not been tackled in this way, the economy would have fared far worse. Volcker’s policies knocked inflation down to 3.8% by 1983.

Reaganomics Would Not Work Today

Today’s conservatives prescribe Reaganomics to make America great again. President Donald Trump and other Republicans have advocated it as the solution the economy needs. But the theory behind Reaganomics reveals why what worked in the 1980s could harm growth today.

The effect that tax cuts have depends on how fast the economy is growing when they are applied. It also depends on the types of taxes and how high they were before the cut. The Laffer Curve shows that cutting taxes only increases government revenue up to a point.

Once taxes get low enough, cutting them will decrease revenue instead. Cuts worked during Reagan’s presidency because the highest tax rate was 70%. They have a much weaker effect when tax rates are below 50%.

For example, President George W. Bush cut taxes in 2001 and 2003 to fight the 2001 recession. The economy grew and revenues increased. Supply-siders, including the president, said that was because of the tax cuts. Monetarists pointed to lower interest rates as the real stimulator of the economy. The Fed lowered the fed fund’s top rate from 6% at the beginning of 2001 to 1% in June 2003.

Reaganomics would not work today because tax rates are already low compared to historical levels of 70%.


Vanityfair.com, “The Irony and the Ecstasy”, By Michael Kinsley; Brookings.edu, “Reagan’s Biggest Failure Holds a Lesson for Bush,” By I.M. Destler and Ivo H. Daalder; kittysneezes.com, “Ronald Reagan: Success or Failure,” By Logan A.; soapboxie.com, “21 Reasons Why Ronald Reagan Was A Terrible President,” by jeff61b; reagan.procon.org, “Was Ronald Reagan a Good President?” by ProCon.org; americanforeignrelations.org, Presidential Advisers – Success and failure under Reagan,” unknown source; duarte.com, “Why Ronald Reagan Deserves the Title ‘The Great Communicator,'” By Nancy Duarte; foxnews.com, “How an assassination attempt changed Ronald Reagan’s presidency–and history,” By Paul Kengor; werehistory.org, “The Failed Assassination Attempt on Ronald Reagan,” By Sarah Katherine Mergel; salon.com, “Ronald Reagan’s shameful legacy: Violence, the homeless, mental illness: As president and governor of California, the GOP icon led the worst policies on mental illness in generations,” By Dr. E. Fuller Torrey; KQED.org/ “Did the Emptying of Mental Hospitals Contribute to Homelessness?” By Jessica Placzek; sites.psu.edu, “U01: Ronald Reagan and the Federal Deinstitutionalization of Mentally Ill Patients,” By Elaine Carmen Guerra; thebalance.com, “Would Reaganomics Work Today?,” By Kimberly Amadeo;

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