Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471 (1971)

2012-06-11 13:16:58

The federal welfare programcalledAid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), enacted as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, was repealed in 1996. Under AFDC, states calculated a standard of need for each family, then allocated welfare grants based on that standard. Generally, the standard of need increased with each additional person in the household. However, some states, like Maryland, imposed an upper limit on the amount of money a family might receive.

Several families affected by Maryland’s policy sued the state under the Equal Protection Clause, arguing that the maximum grant irrationally discriminated against children in large families. The Supreme Court upheld the policy in a five-to-three decision. Applying the minimum level of constitutional scrutiny, the Court held that the policy was rational. The Court credited Maryland’s argument that it maintained financial equity between welfare recipients and the working poor and created an incentive for members of large families to seek employment.

Dandridge was one of a series of cases initiated in the late 1960s and early 1970s to test the constitutionality of state welfare policies. Many of these cases were successful, and some poverty rights activists believed that the Supreme Court would eventually establish a constitutional right to welfare. Dandridge, however, signaled that the Court was prepared to approach state welfare policies with greater deference. In the wake of 1996 welfare reform, lower courts have cited Dandridge to uphold state policies that deny benefit increases when a child is born to a family on welfare, thus permitting states to use financial disincentives to deter poor women from having a child while receiving government benefits.


References and Further Reading

  • Davis, Martha. Brutal Need: Lawyers and the Welfare Rights Movement, 1960–1973. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Krislov, Samuel, The OEOLawyers Fail to Constitutionalize a Right toWelfare:A Study of the Uses and Limits of Judicial Process,Minnesota Law Review 58 (1973): 211–245.
  • Lawrence, Susan E. The Poor in Court: The Legal Services Program and Supreme Court Decision Making. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Sparer, Edward. ‘‘The Right to Welfare.’’ In The Rights of Americans: What They Are—What They Should Be, NormanDorsen, ed. NewYork: Pantheon Books, 1971, 65–93.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Social Security Act of 1935, Pub. L. No. 74-271, 49 Stat. 620

See also Equal Protection of Law (XIV); Fourteenth Amendment; Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970); Wyman v. James, 400 U.S. 309 (1971)