Social Security Act 49 Stat. 620 (1935)

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SOCIAL SECURITY ACT 49 Stat. 620 (1935)

The Social Security Act of 1935, as subsequently amended, is the primary source of federal and federal-state cooperative social welfare programs. In addition to the program popularly denominated "social security," which now includes old age, survivors, and disability insurance, and the fiscally related medical assistance program for the aged (Medicare), the current Social Security Act also provides grants to states for many federally regulated programs, such as unemployment compensation, services to poor families with children (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), services to the aged, blind, and disabled (Supplementary Security Income), health care for the poor (Medicaid), and maternal and child welfare services.

The act has been a fertile source of constitutional litigation. The cooperative federal-state unemployment compensation scheme was narrowly sustained as a legitimate congressional exercise of the power "to lay and collect taxes … to … provide … for the general welfare of the United States" in steward machine co. v. davis (1937). In a companion case, helvering v. davis (1937), seven Justices agreed that the federal social security old age retirement benefits program was well within the purview of Congress's taxing and spending power.

The act has generated a number of important procedural due process cases. goldberg v. kelly (1970) held that due process requires an evidentiary hearing prior to the termination of welfare benefits. Justice william j. brennan, writing for a majority of six, reasoned that a subsequent hearing would be inadequate to protect the interests of the eligible recipient deprived of basic subsistence while she awaited her opportunity to challenge termination of benefits. Goldberg v. Kelly was narrowly construed in mathews v. eldridge (1976), which held that due process does not require a prior evidentiary hearing when social security disability benefits are terminated after a Social Security Administration determination that the worker is no longer disabled. The Court distinguished Goldberg on two grounds: Goldberg involved public assistance for the indigent while social security disability benefits are not based on financial need; and the opportunity for a prior hearing is less valuable to the recipient when the administrative conclusion is based on expert medical testimony, as in a disability termination case, rather than on a wide variety of facts and witness credibility, as in a public assistance case.

The social security program embodied a number of gender-based assumptions about economic dependence that were challenged as violative of the equal protection guarantee in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975) and califano v. goldfarb (1977). In Wiesenfeld, the Court required that "mother's benefits," payable to an insured worker's widow who cares for the worker's child, be extended equally to similarly situated widowers. In Goldfarb, the Court held invalid a requirement that widowers but not widows prove actual dependency on the deceased insured worker.

In another group of cases prospective social welfare beneficiaries have constitutionally challenged the substantive conditions of individual grants. In Flemming v. Nestor (1960), Weinberger v. Salfi (1975), and Mathews v. DeCastro (1976), the Supreme Court rejected such challenges.

Grace Ganz Blumberg


Altmeyer, Arthur 1968 The Formative Years of Social Security. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Department of Health, Education and Welfare 1960 Basic Readings in Social Security: The 25th Anniversary of the Social Security Act. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Witte, Edwin 1962 The Development of the Social Security Act. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

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Social Security Act 49 Stat. 620 (1935)

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