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Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act 42 Stat. 224 (1921)


federal grants-in-aid to the states began in the mid-nineteenth century. As the federal government, in its new capacity as a welfare state, funded important social services, some congressmen and senators considered this form of federal spending socialistic and questioned its constitutionality.

In 1921, Congress passed the Maternity Act, a measure recommended by President warren g. harding, allocating funds to the states for health service for mothers and children, particularly in rural communities. This welfare measure sought to reduce maternal and infant mortality. Critics argued that federal funds could lawfully be spent only in connection with the enumerated powers of Congress, and they asserted that the grant-in-aid was a subtle method of extending federal power and usurping functions properly belonging to the states. Further, since the formal acceptance of such grants by state legislatures brought federal supervision and approval of the funded state activities, the measure placed too much potentially coercive power in the hands of federal bureaucracies.

The Supreme Court was asked to rule on the act's constitutionality in separate suits brought by a taxpayer and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Court did not rule on the merits in either case, holding that the state presented no justiciable controversy and that the taxpayer lacked standing to sue. (See taxpayer ' ssuits; frothingham v. mellon.) Still, many states refused to avail themselves of the provisions of the act, and Congress failed to renew it in 1929. Nonetheless, the projects of this period were a political precedent for much of the modern system of federally dispensed welfare.

Paul L. Murphy


Lemons, J. Stanley 1960 The Sheppard-Towner Act: Progressivism in the 1920's. Journal of American History 55:776–786.

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