Skip to main content

Helvering v. Davis 301 U.S. 619 (1937)

HELVERING v. DAVIS 301 U.S. 619 (1937)

Plaintiff, a stockholder of an affected corporation, challenged Titles II and VIII of the 1935 social security act. Title II creates the old age benefits program, popularly known as "social security," and Title VIII contains the funding mechanism for that program. Under Title VIII, an employer must take a payroll deduction from each employee's wages and pay it, together with an equal amount directly from the employer, to the treasury.

Plaintiff's primary argument was that Congress lacked constitutional power to levy a tax for the purpose of providing old age benefits. Justice benjamin n. cardozo, writing an opinion in which six other Justices joined, resoundingly rejected the argument that Congress had transgressed the tenth amendment reservation to the states of powers not delegated to the federal government. Only Justices james c. mcreynolds and pierce butler dissented. The majority classified the old age benefits program as a legitimate exercise of Congress's power "to lay and collect taxes … to … provide … for the general welfare of the United States." The Court adopted a fluid definition of the general welfare. "Nor is the concept of the general welfare static. Needs that were narrow or parochial a century ago may be interwoven in our day with the well-being of a nation." The Court then examined the effects on older workers of the "purge of nation-wide calamity that began in 1929" and concluded that the problem was national in scope, acute in severity, and intractable without concerted federal effort. State governments were deficient in economic resources and reluctant to finance social programs that would place them at comparative economic disadvantage with competitor states: industry would flee the new taxes and indigents would flock to any state that provided the new social benefits. (Justice Cardozo's analysis proved prescient. In the 1960s and 1970s a number of socially progressive northeastern and western states experienced these twin problems when they far exceeded national benefit norms in the federal-state cooperative programs of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Medicaid.) Having determined that the purpose of Title II was well within the scope of the "general welfare" clause, the Court sustained the Title VIII funding provisions.

In its broad, though imprecise, reading of the term "general welfare," Helvering v. Davis, even more than its companion case, steward machine co. v. davis (1937), rejects the view that Congress, in exercising its power to tax for the general welfare, is required by the Tenth Amendment to eschew regulation of matters historically controlled by the states. In so doing, it repudiates that vein of case law, exemplified by united states v. butler (1936), that treats the Tenth Amendment as a limitation on the federal taxing and spending power. Though Butler is factually distinguishable, the analysis used by Justice Cardozo in Steward Machine Co. and Helvering v. Davis would surely have sustained the agricultural price support provisions struck down in Butler a year earlier.

Grace Ganz Blumberg

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Helvering v. Davis 301 U.S. 619 (1937)." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. . 22 Apr. 2018 <>.

"Helvering v. Davis 301 U.S. 619 (1937)." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. . (April 22, 2018).

"Helvering v. Davis 301 U.S. 619 (1937)." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. . Retrieved April 22, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.