In Goldberg v. Kelly (1970), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a state could not terminate welfare benefits without first giving the recipient the opportunity for an evidentiary oral hearing.
Goldberg capped a trio of decisions expanding federal welfare rights. King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309 (1968), had held that a state may not limit Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to families headed by married couples. Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969), struck a one-year welfare residency requirement as violating the right to interstate travel. In Goldberg, the Court went beyond scrutinizing the particulars of state welfare programs to articulate the general proposition that welfare enjoys the same legal protection as other property.
The plaintiffs in Goldberg v. Kelly were New York City residents who had been cut from the welfare rolls or were about to be. Under agency rules, they could discuss the proposed termination with a caseworker, submit a written protest and have a supervisor review the decision. A hearing, however, was available only after benefits ended. This, the Court held, was unconstitutional.
Writing for the six-to-three majority, Justice William Brennan noted that welfare benefits are ‘‘a matter of statutory entitlement for persons qualified to receive them,’’ adding that ‘‘it may be realistic today to regard welfare entitlements as more like ‘property’ than a ‘gratuity’’’ (Here cited to Charles A. Reich’s, ‘‘The New Property’’). Thus, the prohibition against deprivation of property without due process of law contained in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies to benefits termination.
‘‘Due process of law’’ in this situation requires a pre-termination hearing because of the danger that if aid is terminated pending resolution of a controversy over eligibility, a person who is actually eligible may lose the ‘‘very means by which to live while he waits.’’ The hearing, however, need not be the equivalent of a full-dress trial, but should reflect the needs of the agency and the abilities of the average welfare recipient. The court then articulated a set of ‘‘minimum procedural safeguards,’’ namely, (1) timely notice, giving reasons for the proposed termination; (2) a hearing at which recipients can speak, confront adverse witnesses, and be assisted by counsel (although counsel need not be provided); (3) an impartial decision maker; and (4) a reasoned decision resting on evidence adduced at the hearing.
In its original area of welfare law, the force of Goldberg v. Kelly has been blunted. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 abolished AFDC, replacing it with block grants to states. Indeed, the statute specifies that it creates no federal entitlement to welfare in favor of individuals, leaving the scope of entitlements to state law. Additionally, the Court has retreated from Goldberg’s trial-like vision of administrative due process in such cases as Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976).
Nevertheless, the ‘‘procedural due process revolution’’ started by Goldberg v. Kelly continues. ‘‘Fair hearings’’ are now an established element of the administrative landscape and the importance of statutory and administrative rights—the ‘‘new property’’—is beyond dispute.
References and Further Reading