Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Early History of AFDC
When future historians review the evolution of U.S. income-support policies, they may well treat the 60 years between 1935 and 1995 as one discrete era. The year 1995 was marked by a major challenge to the federal government's role in guaranteeing income support for low-income families. That role began in 1935 when AFDC—then called ADC (Aid to Dependent Children)—was enacted into law. A modest initiative under the new Social Security Act, ADC provided a subsidy to families with fathers who were deceased, absent, or unable to work. While the law was not limited to families headed by widows, it was viewed as a means of extending help to these families, who had had the misfortune to lose a breadwinner and who, it was widely believed, should not be forced to rely on the paid work of a mother, who belonged at home.1,2 ADC was to give children "assistance at least great enough to provide, when added to the income of the family, a reasonable subsistence compatible with decency and health."3 The original legislation set ceilings on assistance levels: In contrast to the $30 monthly then provided to elderly individuals, the maximums were $18 a month for the first child and $12 for the second.4
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 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.2,4 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.5
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.4 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.6
The impact of this policy shift on the image of the ADC program was reinforced by changes in the nation's marriage patterns, as rates of divorce and unwed childbearing began to rise. As early as 1942, the proportion of ADC families in which the mother was divorced, separated, or not married was roughly equal to that headed by widows. To limit the program's support of this politically unpopular group, at least 19 states moved in the 1950s to exclude children from the program on the basis of their birth status, typically denying eligibility to any child born to an unwed mother after she began receiving the subsidy.2
Another demographic change focused attention on the dilemma concerning mothers' work and child care that has also attracted recent attention (see the article by Kisker and Ross in this journal issue).4,7 Large numbers of U.S. mothers began to enter the paid workforce during World War II, and many placed their children in child care programs.8 As this trend escalated through the 1950s and 1960s, it began to alter public assumptions about women's work, child care, and the merits of helping poor mothers stay home with their children.
In the 1960s simmering concerns about ADC began to boil over into national public policy debates. Intensified criticisms of the program coincided with a sharp increase in its size: Between 1960 and 1970, its caseload almost doubled. This growth partly stemmed from the effects of a 20-year migration from the rural South to northern cities that brought millions of Americans (especially African Americans) to cities to seek work just as the urban need for unskilled labor began to decline.9 These migrants and others were helped to gain access to ADC benefits by the court-ordered cessation of discriminatory state regulations like the "suitable homes" rules,7,9,10 by the influence of a growing welfare rights movement, and by welfare officials and social workers who encouraged the poor to take advantage of public assistance.9,11 Together with the changes in divorce and out-of-wedlock child-bearing, these factors expanded the size of the welfare population.
In response to these growing caseloads and cultural and demographic changes, the ADC program was modified in the 1960s. Partly reflecting concern that the program's benefits and eligibility rules discouraged marriage, the program was renamed AFDC—Aid to Families with Dependent Children—in 1962.12 By 1967, federal law required state efforts to establish paternity for AFDC children13 and allowed aid to go to unemployed male parents with a work history.1 Although small, these changes were the first in a series of federal realignments of the program aimed at better resolution of the dilemma of assisting children while stressing parental responsibility. Nevertheless, until the late 1960s, mothers were not expected to work outside the home in order to "deserve" benefits.