Aid to Dependent Children (1935)

views updated May 08 2018

Aid to Dependent Children (1935)

Felice Batlan and Linda Gordon

Aid to Dependent Children or ADC (later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) (P.L. 74-271, 49 Stat. 620), was Title IV of the Social Security Act of 1935. At first it functioned mainly to provide federal grants to help the states maintain their mothers' aid laws which had been passed in forty states between 1910 and 1920. With the federal government providing one-third of costs, the program offered aid to poor parents, assumed at that time to be always women caring for children alone.

The ADC plan was written by Grace Abbott and Katherine Lenroot, at that time the previous and current directors of the U.S. Children's Bureau in the Department of Labor. They lobbied hard to get this program added to the Social Security bill. That bill, which was written by the Committee on Economic Security (CES) was aimed at male breadwinners, reflecting the masculinist assumptions and composition of the Committee. The Children's Bureau's goal was to provide aid to all children whose mothers lacked the support of a breadwinner, no matter how they had got to that position. Moreover, Abbott and Lenroot designed the legislation to operate with the highest social-work standards, offering personal casework services to lone mothers as well as cash stipends. They sought casework both because they wanted to remove ADC recipients from the stigma of receiving public assistance, and because they believed that mother-headed families were problematic and needed support and guidance.

After the bill was introduced, the CES and then Congress revised Abbott and Lenroot's draft. The revisions frustrated their objectives considerably:

  1. Participation by the states was made voluntary and in 1939 eight states had no ADC program.
  2. A provision that required the programs to pay a "reasonable subsistence compatible with decency and health" was removed.
  3. Most of the federal oversight, which would have promised equal treatment to applicants regardless of race or marital status, was removed.
  4. Administration of the program was transferred from the Children's Bureau to the Social Security Administration, which lacked the Children's Bureau's commitment to poor children and their mothers.
  5. The initial appropriation for the program was reduced from $120 to $25 million.

Ironically, the casework provisions for supervision created an effect virtually opposite to the intention of the designers. In the program's first three decades, a provision in the law that authorized ADC assistance only to "suitable homes" reduced drastically the number of eligible children. (In 1960 when 79 of every 1000 children were in need, only 30 received assistance.) This provision particularly inhibited coverage of "illegitimate" children and children of color. Local ADC policy frequently discontinued coverage during seasons of shortages in low-wage labor in fields or homes, thus forcing poor mothers into such labor.

For its first three decades, ADC operated much like a private charity, with its caseworkers given discretion to investigate clients, cut off benefits to those determined to be unsuitable, and reduce benefits to those found in violation of any of ADC's many regulations. Starting in the mid-1960s the National Welfare Rights Organization, which was built primarily by African-American women and was functionally a part of the Civil Rights movement, began organizing to defend welfare recipients' rights. Working together with lawyers in community legal-aid offices, recipients filed hundreds of court cases challenging the administration of ADC. Such litigation had radical goals, which included creating a uniform federal standard for ADC administration and eliminating the most degrading eligibility provisions. The overarching objective entailed establishing a federal constitutional right to a minimum adequate income.

Judicial opinions affecting the program

One of the first ADC (the program was renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC] after two-parent families with an unemployed parent became eligible) cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, King v. Smith (1968), challenged an Alabama regulation allowing for AFDC termination if a recipient "cohabitated" with a man. Numerous states defined "cohabitation" to include even casual relationships. (In Alabama this resulted in 16,000 children being dropped from AFDC.) The Court struck down the provision as inconsistent with federal statutory definitions of "parent," opining that the provision punished a woman for engaging in sexual relations and was unrelated to Congress's intent to provide aid to needy children. Notably, the Court's decision rested on statutory rather than constitutional grounds.

In Shapiro v. Thompson (1969), the Court found unconstitutional state regulations that required families to live in state for a certain time period before becoming eligible for AFDC. The Court ruled that such regulations infringed on the constitutional right to travel and that the state's interest in discouraging indigent families' migration did not defeat this right. King, Shapiro, and other cases that followed reduced the ability of states to restrict AFDC eligibility and provided some ground for the argument that AFDC was not charity but a protected entitlement.

Goldberg v. Kelley (1970) challenged a state's ability to terminate AFDC benefits prior to a hearing. The objectives of the litigation included the belief that the cost of providing such hearings would drastically curtail benefit termination, and that hearings would allow recipients to engage in active resistance. Goldberg also raised the significant issue of whether AFDC constituted a constitutionally protected property right. The Court found that terminations prior to a hearing violated the Due Process Clause, and strongly suggested that AFDC was a protected property right. Goldberg came as close as the Court ever would to finding a constitutional right to a minimum adequate income.

In Dandridge v. Williams (1970), the Court upheld a Maryland regulation, capping AFDC aid at $250 regardless of family size. The decision has been understood as denying the existence of a constitutional right to an adequate minimum income. Furthermore, the Court, in Wyman v. James (1971), refused to find unconstitutional social workers' compulsory visits and inspections of AFDC recipients' homes, arguing that such "visits" did not constitute a government search. Thus Wyman refused to extend additional fundamental rights into the AFDC context. The dissenting opinions argued that AFDC constituted a property right that could not be conditioned on a recipient' consent to an invasion of her fundamental right to privacy and dignity.

Although numerous court challenges failed, by the mid-1970s the Court had broken new ground by striking down, on both statutory and constitutional grounds, some of the severest state provisions regulating AFDC. Moreover, in the first thirty years of the program, some legislative changes improved conditions for recipients. For example, eligibility was extended in several ways, including to 1) children living with two parents of whom one was unemployed, 2) extending the age of eligible children to 18 if they attended school, and 3) extending eligibility to foster children and their custodians. In 1965 the federal government increased its share of costs to 50 percent. In 1969, the Nixon administration proposed a Family Assistance Plan to guarantee a minimum yearly income to all AFDC families whether employed or not. The proposal failed because it alienated both conservatives and liberals; liberals feared that the low level of support guaranteed would create a ceiling over rather than a floor under welfare benefits.

Yet despite these improvements, the bulk of the changes to AFDC during its sixty-year life worsened conditions for recipients. In principle, states had been expected to pay recipients the amount of their "need," as determined by the states, but this rarely happened. (In 1994 average "need" was $688 per month while average payment was $420 per month.) In 1981 Congress required states to count the income of "step-parents," including mothers' boyfriends, against AFDC eligibility.


Understanding the actual impact of AFDC legislation requires taking note of the interaction of other benefit programs with AFDC. Additions to the Social Security and federal unemployment laws gradually took in more lone mothers and children; this removed many of the less needy from AFDC, rendering AFDC the program of last resort. Food assistance programs, expanded in 1961 and again in 1974, supplemented AFDC income, but AFDC income counted against Food Stamp eligibilityfor example, for every dollar of AFDC income, food stamps were reduced by 30 cents. Several legislative efforts to increase collection of child-support payments in order to reduce AFDC expenditures have required recipients to cooperate with the state in establishing paternity of children born outside marriage and in obtaining support payments. The most important addition to the welfare system was Medicaid, providing medical insurance for welfare recipients. Ironically, this program locked many recipients into the welfare system because, typically, the jobs they were able to find offered no health-insurance benefits.

The original purpose of ADC was to allow mothers to stay home with their children, but starting in the 1960s the system was reconfigured in various ways to push mothers into the labor force. Further amendments provided tax incentives for taking jobs and cut off aid to children whose mothers refused offers of "suitable" employment. A variety of "workfare" programs, in which parents had to earn benefits through unpaid labor, were attempted at both state and federal levels. For some time many states allowed adult welfare recipients to attend school as a form of work, because education tends to reduce welfare dependence over time, but this provision was gradually squeezed out. In general, workfare was unsuccessful because the wages that most welfare recipients could earn were not adequate to raise children in safety and health.

But as politicians and poverty scholars began evaluating success in terms of declining welfare caseloads instead of declining child poverty, these welfare-to-work programs led to repeal of the entire AFDC program in 1996.

See also: Federal Unemployment Tax Act; Food Stamp Act of 1964; Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act; Social Security Act of 1935.


Bell, Winifred. Aid to Dependent Children. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

Davis, Martha F. Brutal Need: Lawyers and the Welfare Rights Movement, 1960-1973. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Forbath, William. "The Constitution and the Obligations of Government to Secure the Material Preconditions for a Good Society." Fordham Law Review 69 (2001): 1821.

Gordon, Linda. Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Katz, Michael B. The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. New York: Pantheon, 1989.

Michaelman, Frank I. "The Supreme Court 1968 Term Foreword: On Protecting the Poor Through the Fourteenth Amendment." Harvard Law Review 83 (1969): 7.

Michaelman, Frank I. "In Pursuit of Constitutional Welfare Rights; One View of Rawl's Theory of Justice." University of Pennsylvania Law Review 121 (1973): 962.

Mink, Gwendolyn. Welfare's End. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Reich, Charles A. "The New Property." Yale Law Journal 73 (1964): 733.

West, Guida. The National Welfare Rights Movement: The Social Protest of Poor Women. New York: Praeger, 1981.

Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC)

views updated May 11 2018

Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC)

Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), which the U.S. Congress enacted on August 14, 1935, as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, began as a program limited to dependent children under sixteen who had lost one or both parents, an outgrowth of the underfunded widows' pensions numerous states enacted after 1911. The assistance was cash only. For every two dollars a state provided, the federal government gave one. States mostly set the eligibility rules, and in those states contributing little, difficulties abounded. Even though ADC enrolled double the children in 1939 that it had initially, it never covered more than one-third of the eligible childrenand no adults. Because the aged needy had more leverage in Congress than did dependent children, a mother and her child in 1940 received $18 a month, while the elderly needy won $30 a month as individuals. In any event, recipients received very small sums. Until 1950 ADC offered nothing for the caregiver, only the children, forcing many mothers out of the home into the low wage job market. Many states penalized "absent fathers" and mixed moral and economic criteria for ADC. Regional differences in payments and regulations varied widely. Racists, conservatives, and low wage employers manipulated the rules in their favorand exploited the poorin many states.

Vastly increased federal spending in the 1940s and 1950s generated enough prosperity to make poverty (apparently) disappear, and to encourage massive movements of peoples of all classes and races around the country, and from farm to city or suburb. By the 1960s ADC and other programs ballooned, and ADC became AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, with caregivers' stipends added. In 1960 AFDC was the largest federal welfare program, with 3,000,000 enrollees. Even so, only a sixth of those eligible were enrolled in 1960, whereas a third had been in 1939. Support averaged $30 monthly for one dependent or $115 per family in 1960. Well into the early 1970s, the rolls grew at a dizzying pace, due to the growing impoverishment of the lower classes. The age's egalitarianism and individualism encouraged the poor to demand welfare as a right, not merely a privilege, and this, combined with racial tensions, and the growing new conservative movement, led to increasingly fractious criticisms of AFDC. By the early 1990s, AFDC, and the compassionate welfare vision of an earlier era, was increasingly politically out of step with the times. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 ended AFDC.

See also: Great Depression and New Deal; Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act; Social Welfare.


Altmeyer, Arthur J. 1968. The Formative Years of Social Security. A Chronicle of Social Security Legislation and Administration, 1934-1954. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Commager, Henry Steele, ed. 1948. Documents in American History, 4th ed. 2 vols. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Patterson, James T. 1985. America's Struggle Against Poverty 1900-1980. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hamilton Cravens