Aid to Dependent Children (ADC)

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Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), Title IV of the Social Security Act of 1935, provided federal matching grants to state programs for poor, "dependent" children. Although it was one of the least controversial provisions of the 1935 law, ADC paved the way for the single-parent family entitlement ("welfare") that has provoked so much opposition and public criticism since the Depression.

ADC federalized the state mothers' aid programs that had been passed during the World War I era. These were state laws mandating that local governments assist mothers in homes where the "breadwinner" was incapacitated. A product of the Progressive-era reform crusade, mothers' aid programs were often justified as a way of keeping low-income families intact and keeping children out of institutional care. The caseloads were generally small, as authorities sought to restrict mothers' aid to a few "deserving" recipients who conformed to middle-class norms. Mothers' aid programs spread quickly and were implemented by nearly every state in the two decades that preceded the Great Depression. In most localities, mothers' aid programs were administered separately from traditional public and private "general relief" programs that assisted impoverished families and single individuals.

During the early years of the Great Depression, however, it was general relief that absorbed the bulk of unemployed workers seeking aid. Mothers' pension caseloads increased, but these programs were dwarfed by the national unemployment relief system, which by late 1932 was bankrolled in part by federal funds from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Mothers' aid programs were initially not eligible to receive federal funding under the New Deal's relief program, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

When the Committee on Economic Security (CES), which wrote the Social Security Act, was created in June 1934, it was assumed that state mothers' aid programs would receive federal funds under the new legislation. This fact, coupled with the decision later in the year to abandon the federal general relief program, represented an abrupt about-face for the New Deal. Now so-called "categorical" programs (programs targeted to the elderly, children, and the disabled) would receive federal aid, and general assistance would be returned to the states.

The planning and legislative process that produced ADC attracted little public attention, yet there was a good deal of behind-the-scenes maneuvering for control of the program. Initially it was assumed that the United States Children's Bureau, the federal agency that oversaw national child welfare polices, would administer ADC. Children's Bureau officials actually wrote the initial policy draft for the CES. But these officials were a minority on the advisory committees that assisted the CES. Just prior to the submission of the legislation to Congress, the ADC program was taken from the Bureau and given to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the New Deal agency that had been administering relief since 1933. This was a small and short-lived victory for the new federal bureaucracy of the early New Deal.

Congress eventually decided to have ADC administered by a Bureau of Public Assistance located within the new Social Security Board. The Bureau of Public Assistance was also charged with administering the larger and more politically important grant program for the elderly (Old Age Assistance). ADC, as the name implied, was now targeted to children and the term "mothers' pensions" was abandoned. Initially, federal grants provided for one-third of state program expenditures. This was expanded to a fifty-fifty matching grant in 1939.

The overall impact of the new federal program was to liberalize the mothers' aid policies inherited from the Progressive era. To be eligible for federal aid, states were required to allocate funds for ADC and operate programs in all local areas. As a result, many states that had previously resisted appropriating funds for needy families were now forced to do so, and programs were established in many localities that had never implemented mothers' aid. State and local policies that restricted aid to a limited number of "worthy" widows were weakened, particularly by the influx of single parents who had worked their way onto the federal general relief rolls during the early years of the Depression.

Still, ADC incorporated many of the restrictive features of the old mothers' pension programs. No adequate standard of aid was established, and payments varied widely from state to state. States were allowed to keep traditional mothers' aid provisions requiring that aid be given only to those who maintained a "suitable home" for their children. While such language could be used to increase benefit payments to make the homes more "suitable" (the approach federal officials advocated), it was also used to deny aid to needy applicants who did not conform to white middle-class norms. In southern states, suitable home requirements were widely used to deny aid to needy black families.

Some historians have argued that the limitations inherent in ADC and the flaws in its early implementation sowed the seeds of the modern welfare dilemma. The New Deal's Social Security legislation, it is suggested, created a two-tiered welfare system: one set of popular national programs (old-age insurance and unemployment compensation) existing side-by-side with an unpopular and politically vulnerable welfare entitlement (ADC). Others argue that the New Deal established a limited but politically defensible entitlement for children and suggest that the "welfare explosion" of the 1960s altered the original intent of ADC. Yet all agree that the ADC policy, which received virtually no attention when the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, produced unforeseen consequences in social policy and politics



Bell, Winifred. Aid to Dependent Children. 1965.

Brown, Josephine. Public Relief, 1929–1939. 1940.

Gordon, Linda. Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890–1935. 1994.

Howard, Christopher. "Sowing the Seeds of 'Welfare': The Transformation of Mothers' Pensions, 1900–1940." Journal of Policy History 4, no. 2 (1992): 188–227.

Piven, Frances Fox, and Cloward, Richard A. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. 1971.

Skocpol, Theda. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. 1992.

Teles, Stephen M. Who's Welfare?: AFDC and Elite Politics. 1996.

Jeff Singleton