Amdt14.S1.8.3.4 Social Welfare

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The traditional reasonable basis standard of equal protection adjudication developed in the main in cases involving state regulation of business and industry. The administration of public welfare assistance, by contrast, involves the most basic economic needs of impoverished human beings. We recognize the dramatically real factual difference between the cited cases and this one, but we can find no basis for applying a different constitutional standard.1 Thus, a formula for dispensing aid to dependent children that imposed an upper limit on the amount one family could receive, regardless of the number of children in the family, so that the more children in a family the less money per child was received, was found to be rationally related to the legitimate state interest in encouraging employment and in maintaining an equitable balance between welfare families and the families of the working poor. 2 Similarly, a state welfare assistance formula that, after calculation of individual need, provided less of the determined amount to families with dependent children than to those persons in the aged and infirm categories did not violate equal protection because a state could reasonably believe that the aged and infirm are the least able to bear the hardships of an inadequate standard of living, and that the apportionment of limited funds was therefore rational. 3 Although reiterating that this standard of review is not a toothless one, the Court has nonetheless sustained a variety of distinctions on the basis that Congress could rationally have believed them justified, 4 acting to invalidate a provision only once, and then on the premise that Congress was actuated by an improper purpose. 5

Similarly, the Court has rejected the contention that access to housing, despite its great importance, is of any fundamental interest that would place a bar upon the legislature’s giving landlords a much more favorable and summary process of judicially controlled eviction actions than was available in other kinds of litigation. 6

However, a statute that prohibited the dispensing of contraceptive devices to single persons for birth control but not for disease prevention purposes and that contained no limitation on dispensation to married persons was held to violate the Equal Protection Clause on several grounds. On the basis of the right infringed by the limitation, the Court saw no rational basis for the state to distinguish between married and unmarried persons. Similarly, the exemption from the prohibition for purposes of disease prevention nullified the argument that the rational basis for the law was the deterrence of fornication, the rationality of which the Court doubted in any case. 7 Also denying equal protection was a law affording married parents, divorced parents, and unmarried mothers an opportunity to be heard with regard to the issue of their fitness to continue or to take custody of their children, an opportunity the Court decided was mandated by due process, but presuming the unfitness of the unmarried father and giving him no hearing. 8


  1.  Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485 (1970). Decisions respecting the rights of the indigent in the criminal process and dicta in Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 627 (1969), had raised the prospect that because of the importance of food, shelter, and other necessities of life, classifications with an adverse or perhaps severe impact on the poor and needy would be subjected to a higher scrutiny. Dandridge was a rejection of this approach, which was more fully elaborated in another context in San Antonio School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 18-29 (1973).
  2.  Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 483-87 (1970).
  3.  Jefferson v. Hackney, 406 U.S. 535 (1972). See also Richardson v. Belcher, 404 U.S. 78 (1971) (sustaining Social Security provision reducing disability benefits by amount received from worker’s compensation but not that received from private insurance).
  4.  E.g., Mathews v. De Castro, 429 U.S. 181 (1976) (provision giving benefits to married woman under sixty-two with dependent children in her care whose husband retires or becomes disabled but denying benefits to divorced woman under sixty-two with dependents represents rational judgment with respect to likely dependency of married but not divorced women); Califano v. Boles, 443 U.S. 282 (1979) (limitation of benefits to widows and divorced wives of wage earners does not deny equal protection to mother of child born out of wedlock of wage earner who was never married to wage earner).
  5.  Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528 (1973) (also questioning rationality).
  6.  Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56 (1972). The Court did invalidate one provision of the law requiring tenants against whom an eviction judgment had been entered after a trial to post a bond in double the amount of rent to become due by the determination of the appeal, because it bore no reasonable relationship to any valid state objective and arbitrarily distinguished between defendants in eviction actions and defendants in other actions. Id. at 74-79.
  7.  Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972).
  8.  Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 658 (1972).