Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC)

Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), which the U.S. Congress enacted on August 14, 1935, as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, began as a program limited to dependent children under sixteen who had lost one or both parents, an outgrowth of the underfunded widows' pensions numerous states enacted after 1911. The assistance was cash only. For every two dollars a state provided, the federal government gave one. States mostly set the eligibility rules, and in those states contributing little, difficulties abounded. Even though ADC enrolled double the children in 1939 that it had initially, it never covered more than one-third of the eligible children–and no adults. Because the aged needy had more leverage in Congress than did dependent children, a mother and her child in 1940 received $18 a month, while the elderly needy won $30 a month as individuals. In any event, recipients received very small sums. Until 1950 ADC offered nothing for the caregiver, only the children, forcing many mothers out of the home into the low wage job market. Many states penalized "absent fathers" and mixed moral and economic criteria for ADC. Regional differences in payments and regulations varied widely. Racists, conservatives, and low wage employers manipulated the rules in their favor–and exploited the poor–in many states.

Vastly increased federal spending in the 1940s and 1950s generated enough prosperity to make poverty (apparently) disappear, and to encourage massive movements of peoples of all classes and races around the country, and from farm to city or suburb. By the 1960s ADC and other programs ballooned, and ADC became AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, with caregivers' stipends added. In 1960 AFDC was the largest federal welfare program, with 3,000,000 enrollees. Even so, only a sixth of those eligible were enrolled in 1960, whereas a third had been in 1939. Support averaged $30 monthly for one dependent or $115 per family in 1960. Well into the early 1970s, the rolls grew at a dizzying pace, due to the growing impoverishment of the lower classes. The age's egalitarianism and individualism encouraged the poor to demand welfare as a right, not merely a privilege, and this, combined with racial tensions, and the growing new conservative movement, led to increasingly fractious criticisms of AFDC. By the early 1990s, AFDC, and the compassionate welfare vision of an earlier era, was increasingly politically out of step with the times. The WELFARE REFORM ACT OF 1996 ended AFDC.

See also: Great Depression and New Deal; Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act; Social Welfare.


Altmeyer, Arthur J. 1968. The Formative Years of Social Security. A Chronicle of Social Security Legislation and Administration, 1934-1954. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Commager, Henry Steele, ed. 1948. Documents in American History, 4th ed. 2 vols. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Patterson, James T. 1985. America's Struggle Against Poverty 1900-1980. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.