Skip to main content

Aid To Dependent Children: The Legal History

The Legal History of the Aid to Dependent Children Program

Linda Gordon, Professor of History, New York University and Felice Batlan, Professor of Law, Chicago Kent School of Law

This 1940 poster was part of trio highlighting the programs under the Social Security Act of 1935. This poster is a reminder that the Aid to Dependent Children program (aka AFDC) was an original program under Title IV of the Social Security Act, until it was repealed in 1996 as part of "welfare reform."
This 1940 poster was part of trio highlighting the programs under the Social Security Act of 1935. This poster is a reminder that the Aid to Dependent Children program (aka AFDC) was an original program under Title IV of the Social Security Act, until it was repealed in 1996 as part of “welfare reform.”
Photo: SSA History Archives

Aid to Dependent Children or ADC (later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC) 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 that had been passed in 40 states between 1910 and 1920. With the federal government providing 1/3 of costs, the program offered aid to poor parents, imagined at that time to be always female, caring for children without a husband.

The ADC plan was written by the previous and current directors of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor, Grace Abbott and Katherine Lenroot. They lobbied hard to get this program added to the Social Security bill, which was aimed at male breadwinners, reflecting the masculinist assumptions and composition of the Committee on Economic Security (CES) that wrote the bill. 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 got to that position. Moreover, Abbott and Lenroot designed it 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 public assistance, and because they believed that mother-headed families were problematic and needed support and guidance.

Revisions to their draft, however, imposed first by the CES and then by the Congress after the bill was introduced, frustrated their objectives considerably. Participation by the states was voluntary and in 1939 eight states had no ADC program. A provision that required the programs to pay a “reasonable subsistence compatible with decency and health” was removed. Most of the federal oversight, which would have promised equal treatment to applicants regardless of race or marital status, was removed. Administration of the program was transferred from the U.S. Children’s Bureau to the Social Security Administration, which lacked the Children’s Bureau’s commitment to poor children and their mothers. 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. A provision in the law that authorized ADC assistance only to “suitable homes” functioned, in the program’s first three decades, to reduce the number of eligible children (in 1960 when 79 of every 1000 children were in need, only 30 received assistance) and, particularly, to inhibit coverage of “illegitimate” children and children of color. Local ADC policy frequently discontinued coverage during seasons when low-wage labor was short in fields or homes, thus forcing poor mothers into such labor.

For its first three decades, AFDC operated much like a private charity, with its case workers given discretion in investigating clients, cutting off benefits to those determined to be unsuitable, and reducing benefits to those found in violation of any of AFDC’s myriad regulations. Starting in the mid-1960s the National Welfare Rights Organization, built primarily by African American women and 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 AFDC. Such litigation had radical goals, which included creating a uniform federal standard for AFDC administration and eliminating the most degrading eligibility provisions. The overarching objective entailed establishing a federal constitutional right to a minimum adequate income.

One of the first AFDC 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 not 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 AFDC eligible. The Court ruled that such regulations infringed upon the constitutional right to travel and that the state’s interest in discouraging indigent family’s migration did not defeat this right. King, Shapiro, and their progeny 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 pre-hearing terminations 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 an 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 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 consenting 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 most draconian 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 children living with two parents of whom one was unemployed, extending the age of eligible children to 18 if they attended school, and 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, the latter fearing that the low level of support guaranteed would create a ceiling over rather than a floor under welfare benefits.

The bulk of the changes to AFDC during its 70-year life worsened conditions for recipients, however. 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/month while average payment was $420/month.) In 1981 Congress required states to count the income of “stepparents,” e.g., 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 Social Security gradually removed many of the less needy from AFDC, as unemployment insurance did, 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 eligibility (e.g., 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 the needy. Ironically, this program locked many recipients into the welfare system because, in the U.S., they typically would get no medical insurance in the job sectors in which they found work.

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 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, since education tends to reduce welfare dependence over time, but this provision was steadily squeezed out. In general, workfare was unsuccessful because the wages that most welfare recipients could earn were not adequate to raising children in safety and health. But by 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.


Court Cases (please note that these are not provided in APA format)
Rosas v. McMahon, 945 F.2d 1469 (1991)
Van Lare v. Hurley, 421 U.S. 338 (1975)
Lascaris v. Shirley, 420 U.S. 730 (1975)
Burns v. Alcala,420 U.S. 575 (1975)
Shea v. Vialpando, 416 U.S. 251 (1974)
Ortwein v. Schwab, 410 U.S. 656 (1973)
Carleson v. Remillard, 406 U.S. 598 (1972)
Jefferson v. Hackney, 406 U.S. 535 (1972)
Wyman v. James, 400 U.S. 309 (1971)
Townsend v. Swank, 404 U.S. 282 (1971)
Goldberg v. Kelley, 397 U.S. 254 (1970)
Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471 (1970)
Lewis v. Martin, 397 U.S. 552 (1970)
Rosado v. Wyman, 397 U.S. 397 (1970)
Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969)
Rothstein v. Wyman, 303 F. Supp 339 (S.D.N.Y. 1969)
King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309 (1968)

Other Sources
Bell, W. (1965). Aid to Dependent Children. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Davis, M.F. (1993). Brutal need: Lawyers and the Welfare Rights Movement, 1960-1973. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Forbath, W. (2001). The Constitution and the obligations of government to secure the material preconditions for a good society.” Fordham Law Review: 69, 1821.
Gordon, L. (1994). Pitied but not entitled: Single mothers and the history of welfare. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Katz, M.B. (1989). The undeserving poor: From the war on poverty to the war on welfare. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Kornbluh, F. (1998). The goals of the national Welfare Rights Movement: Why we need them thirty years later.  Feminist Studies, 24, 65.
Michaelman, F.I. (1969). The Supreme Court 1968 term foreword: On protecting the poor through the Fourteenth Amendment. Harvard Law Review, 83, 7.
Mink, G. (1998). Welfare’s end. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Reich, C.A. (1964). The new property. Yale Law Journal, 73, 733.
West, G. (1981). The national Welfare Rights Movement: The social protest of poor women. New York, NY: Praeger.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Gordon, L. & Batlan, F. (2011). The legal history of the Aid to Dependent Children Program. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

6 Replies to “Aid To Dependent Children: The Legal History”

    • VCU Libraries doesn’t have that information and I suspect it would be difficult for you to access. You might begin your search in the town where the application was first made.

    • Would he have been the one to apply? Or did you apply and put his name down on the application? This is not an answer to your question, but I am doing research here, too, and I am just curious about how many men have actually been able to obtain benefits for their children and how the laws have changed over time.

  1. I received AFDC back in the 1970s – one child, ex husband not paying court ordered child support.
    I am trying to find out what the average payment during that time was.

  2. Ms. Reed: The only way to be enrolled is to apply at your local Department of Human Services. Depending on where you live, the local public welfare agency may be a county or state office. Best wishes. Jack Hansan

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.