The History Of Child Support Is As Easy As ADC


By Joshua E. Stern

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the history of child support in the US. It’s far more interesting than I expected. I’m hoping to wrap up a comprehensive blog post on the topic, but until then, here’s a preview (as it were).

As a family law attorney, I hear a lot of complaints about child support and the child support guidelines. Interestingly, the child support guidelines might be one of the fairest and most coherent ways to administer child support. Is it perfect? Not even close. Should we throw out the guidelines altogether? No. The reality is that child support administration suffered from massive abuses of discretion throughout much of its existence. While I expect that IL’s child support guidelines may be revised one day to reflect the increasing complexity of modern familial relationships, my research has convinced me that child support guidelines are absolutely necessary.

Child Support Begins With The Aid To Families With Dependent Children

Child support came about as part of the Title IV-A of the Social Security Act. Back then it was known as Aid To Families With Dependent Children. It’s aim was to provide support to all single mothers, presumably so they could stay out of the workforce and provide support to their children. Like many government programs, the goal was admirable and the scope was broad. Unfortunately, like many social welfare programs before it, child support became the victim of political horse trading. Linda Gordan and Felice Batlan have an excellent article on the history of the ADC that I cannot recommend enough and has served as a fantastic starting point for my research.

Aid To Families With Dependent Children “was written by the previous and current directors of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor, Grace Abbott and Katherine Lenroot.” Their goal “was to provide aid to all children whose mothers lacked the support of a breadwinner, no matter how they got to that position. Moreover, Abbott and Lenroot designed it to operate with the highest social work standards, offering personal casework services to lone mothers as well as cash stipends. They sought casework both because they wanted to remove ADC recipients from the stigma of public assistance, and because they believed that mother-headed families were problematic and needed support and guidance.” (Linda Gordon and Felice Batlan, The Legal History Of Aid To Dependent Children Program, [link])

Like all legislation, the Aid To Families With Dependent Children suffered some setbacks and revisions before coming into law.

“Participation by the states was voluntary and in 1939 eight states had no ADC program. A provision that required the programs to pay a ‘reasonable subsistence compatible with decency and health’ was removed. Most of the federal oversight, which would have promised equal treatment to applicants regardless of race or marital status, was removed. Administration of the program was transferred from the U.S. Children’s Bureau to the Social Security Administration, which lacked the Children’s Bureau’s commitment to poor children and their mothers. The initial appropriation for the program was reduced from $120 to $25 million.” (Linda Gordon and Felice Batlan, The Legal History Of Aid To Dependent Children Program, [link])

The ADC’s trouble only continued once it became law. The ADC included a provision which only authorized assistance to “suitable homes.” This provision effectively reduced the number of children covered by the ADC and inhibited “coverage of ‘illegitimate’ children and children of color.” Further, “[l]ocal ADC policy frequently discontinued coverage during seasons when low-wage labor was short in fields or homes, thus forcing poor mothers into such labor.” Case workers were given “discretion in investigating clients, cutting off benefits to those determined to be unsuitable, and reducing benefits to those found in violation of any of AFDC’s myriad regulations.” (Linda Gordon and Felice Batlan, The Legal History Of Aid To Dependent Children Program, [link])

“The original purpose of ADC was to allow mothers to stay home with their children, but starting in the 1960s the system was reconfigured in various ways to push mothers into the labor force. Further amendments provided tax incentives for taking jobs and cut off aid to children whose mothers refused offers of “suitable” employment. A variety of ‘workfare’ programs were attempted at both state and federal levels. For some time many states allowed adult welfare recipients to attend school as a form of work, since education tends to reduce welfare dependence over time, but this provision was steadily squeezed out.” (Linda Gordon and Felice Batlan, The Legal History Of Aid To Dependent Children Program, [link])

I promise more info is on the way, and the story gets a little less depressing in more recent years. Sort of.

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