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Aid for Dependent Children (ADC: 1935-1961)
By: John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
Introduction: Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) was established by the Social Security Act of 1935 as a grant program to enable states to provide cash welfare payments for needy children who had been deprived of parental support or care because their father or mother was absent from the home, incapacitated, deceased, or unemployed. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands operated an AFDC program. States defined “need,” set their own benefit levels, established (within federal limitations) income and resource limits, and administered the program or supervised its administration. States were entitled to unlimited federal funds for reimbursement of benefit payments, at “matching” rates that were inversely related to state per capita income. States were required to provide aid to all persons who were in classes eligible under federal law and whose income and resources were within state-set limits.
Early Years: The 1935 Social Security Act, however, was not the first government income support provided to poor children in the United States. In most cases, ADC added federal aid to state mothers’ pension programs, which were already assisting “deserving” poor lone mothers. Several features of the new ADC program kept states from abandoning their current efforts following the passage of the Social Security Act. Federal ADC aid was contingent on state contributions, and states were given considerable discretion to determine ADC eligibility and grant levels. For example, a state could continue to require that only children living in so-called “suitable homes” could receive assistance. Until they were struck down in 1960, these requirements were used to exclude “undesirable” families from aid, particularly children of never-married or African-American mothers.
Although the ADC subsidy was originally intended to allow mothers to stay at home to care for their children, a series of cultural, demographic, and policy shifts related to marriage, poverty, and women’s employment began to undermine public support for that goal. Concerns about whether the ADC subsidy inadvertently encouraged unwed motherhood arose early on in some states. From a federal perspective, these concerns were short-circuited by the perception that ADC was a program for families headed by widows. In 1939, however, Survivors Benefits were added to the mainstream Social Security program that separately aided widows—the most “deserving” of mothers—and left the ADC program to serve a caseload of apparently less deserving single mothers.
The original title of the program was Aid to Dependent Children. The stated purpose of Title IV was to provide financial assistance to needy dependent children. The federal program made no provision for assisting a parent or other relative in the household although it did specify that the child must live with a parent or other close relatives to be eligible for federal aid. It was not until 1950 that the federal government began to share in the maintenance costs of a caretaker relative the child of an unemployed parent and that parent (AFDC-Unemployed Parent), effective in 1961; a second parent in a family with an incapacitated or unemployed parent was allowed effective in 1962 and the name of the program was changed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children.