Man-in-the-House Rule

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A regulation that was formerly applied in certain jurisdictions that denied poor familieswelfarepayments in the event that a man resided under the same roof with them.

Under the man-in-the-house rule, a child who otherwise qualified for welfare benefits was denied those benefits if the child's mother was living with, or having relations with, any single or married able-bodied male. The man was considered a substitute father, even if the man was not supporting the child.

Before 1968 administrative agencies in many states created and enforced the man-in-the-house rule. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the regulation as being contrary to the legislative goals of the Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The AFDC program, established by the Social Security Act of 1935 (49 Stat. 620, as amended [42 U.S.C.A. § 301 et seq.]), provides benefits to the children of impoverished parents.

In King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 88 S. Ct. 2128, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1118 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court entertained a challenge to the man-in-the-house rule brought by the four children of Mrs. Sylvester Smith, a widow. These children were denied benefits by Dallas County, Alabama, welfare authorities, based on their knowledge that a man named Williams was visiting Smith on weekends and had sexual relations with her.

The children of Smith filed a class action suit in federal court on behalf of other children in Alabama who were denied benefits under Alabama's "substitute father" regulation. This regulation considered a man a substitute father if (1) he lived in the home with the mother; (2) he visited the home frequently for the purpose of living with the mother; or (3) he cohabited with the mother elsewhere (King, citing Alabama Manual for Administration of Public Assistance, pt. I, ch. II, § VI). Testimony in the case revealed that there was some confusion among the authorities over how to interpret the regulation. One official testified that the regulation applied only if the parties had sex at least once a week, another official testified that sex every three months was sufficient, and still another placed the frequency at once every six months.

According to the High Court, Congress did not intend that the AFDC program require children "to look for their food to a man who is not in the least obliged to support them." The Court maintained that when Congress used the term parent in the social security act, it was referring to "an individual who owed to the child a state-imposed legal duty of support." Ultimately, the Court struck down the man-in-the-house rule by holding that under the AFDC provisions in the Social Security Act, "destitute children who are legally fatherless cannot be flatly denied federally funded assistance on the transparent fiction that they have a substitute father."