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King v. Smith

Significance

The ruling affirmed that the focus of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) should be the needs of the child, and that the federal regulations which established AFDC were clear on who could be considered a "parent." While the Court ruled based on the regulations themselves, and not on constitutional grounds, the decision did not reject the argument that welfare payments may have been protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC) was established under the Social Security Act of 1935. Its goal was to protect the welfare of dependent children who were deprived of the breadwinning parent, and was a direct result of the hardships experienced during the Great Depression. The Court explained in this case that, "The Act defines a dependent child as one who has been deprived of parental support or care by reason of death, continued absence, or incapacity of a parent, and insofar as relevant in this case aid can be granted under the provision only if a parent of the needy child is continually absent from the home." The Court recognized in this case that states have some say in how the program will be carried out: "There is no question that States have considerable latitude in allocating their AFDC resources, since each State is free to set its own standard of need and to determine the level of benefits by the amount of funds it devotes to the program." But the question of denying otherwise eligible children based on the behavior of the mother was raised, and answered, in the suit brought against the state of Alabama.

In 1964, Alabama enacted regulations that excluded otherwise eligible needy children from receiving AFDC benefits if there was a "substitute father" involved. In this case, the regulations explained, an

able-bodied man, married or single, is considered a substitute father of all the children of the applicant . . . mother . . . [if] he lives in the home with the child's natural or adoptive mother for the purpose of cohabitation . . . he visits frequently for the purpose of cohabiting with the child's natural or adoptive mother . . . [or] he does not frequent the home but cohabits with the child's natural or adoptive mother elsewhere.

Cohabitation was not directly defined within the regulations, but the Court heard testimony which indicated that it meant "essentially that the man and woman have `frequent' or `continuing' sexual relations," although there was no agreement on just how frequent or continuing this contact had to be. Alabama argued that the regulation was "a legitimate way of allocating its limited resources available for AFDC assistance, discourage illicit sexual relationships and illegitimate births, and treat informal married couple[s] like ordinary married couples who are ineligible for AFDC aid so long as their father is in the home."

Mrs. Sylvester Smith and her four children were removed from AFDC rolls in October of 1966 because of the substitute father regulation. The three of the children, whose father had died in 1955, and the fourth child, whose father had left the family in 1963, were all eligible for AFDC except for the substitute father regulation. The "substitute father" in this case was a Mr. Williams, who came to the family's home on weekends and had sexual relations with Mrs. Smith. Mr. Williams was not in any way legally required to provide support for the children, and in fact did not. He lived with his own wife and nine children. After the family stopped receiving aid, a class action suit was heard by a three-judge panel in district court. This court found that the regulations were inconsistent both with the original Social Security Act and with the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

In considering the case, the U.S. Supreme Court turned first to the Flemming Ruling, passed by Congress in 1961. The ruling acknowledged the concerns of states regarding illegitimacy and immorality, but made clear that children could not be denied aid based on the questionable morality of the mother. The ruling stated,

A State plan . . . may not impose an eligibility condition that would deny assistance with respect to a needy child on the basis that the home conditions in which the child lives are unsuitable, while the child continues to reside in the home. Assistance will therefore be continued during the time efforts are being made either to improve the home conditions or to make arrangements for the child elsewhere.

By flatly denying the Smith children aid based on Mrs. Smith's behavior, Alabama violated the Flemming Ruling and the nature of the Social Security Act, which allows only for rehabilitative measures in response to concerns about immorality.

The Court also found that Alabama's regulations did not conform to the definition of a parent, as described in the Social Security Act. Because Alabama's substitute father had no legal obligation to provide for the mother's children, the Court found this irreconcilable with the notion of a parent who would provide economic security for a child. Based on these statutory grounds, the Court held that Alabama's regulations were invalid; the Court did not need to address the constitutional question, that of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice Douglas, though, wrote a concurring opinion which addressed that clause. Douglas understood Alabama's regulations as "aimed at punishing mothers who have nonmarital sexual relations," without regard for "the economic need of the children, their age, their other means of support." Based on the related Levy v. Louisiana (1968) which barred discrimination against illegitimate children under the Fourteenth Amendment, Douglas found that the discrimination in this case, too, fell under the Equal Protection Clause.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972King v. Smith - Significance, Further Readings