Income Deeming in the AFDC Program: Using Dual Track Family Law to Make Poor Women Poorer


A series of federal amendments to the Aid to Families With Dependent Children Program (AFDC), in the 1980s, has created a dual track family law system imposing more extensive familial obligations on the poor than on any other class. AFDC is the major income maintenance program for women and children in the United States with approximately 3.7 million families receiving benefits. Although states have numerous options in administering the program, the broad outlines and many of the specific requirements are set by federal policy as a condition of the state’s receiving federal financial participation in the costs of the program. Stepparents, grandparents, and siblings (as well as half-siblings) of indigent children are now presumed financially responsible for those children, as well as any other person in the household who wants to apply for AFDC or who could be required to apply for AFDC by a complicated set of mandatory “grant group composition” rules. Each of these statutory provisions “deems” the income of stepparents, grandparents or siblings to be available to all indigent household members, without regard to whether that income is actually made available to them, and accordingly reduces (or terminates) their AFDC grant dollar for dollar.

Income deeming is a technique used in the AFDC program to make poor women poorer. Rather than a direct benefit decrease, it reduces AFDC benefits by redefining “available” income to include the income of people other than the AFDC recipients. As discussed below, it further mystifies the AFDC program, decreases the ability of poor people to understand how their grants are calculated, and further isolates the extremely poor from the employed poor. Because of the peculiar structure of the welfare system, it has a disparate impact on women and children.

In the course of reducing income, it also creates dual track family law – one set of family responsibility requirements for the poor, created through federal welfare law and another, less onerous set of state family law requirements for everyone else. Under the AFDC sibling deeming rules, child support paid for one child in a household is counted as income available to that child’s half-siblings. In contrast, under traditional state family law doctrines, child support is based on the unique needs of the child for whom it is paid and is restricted to the use of that child. Siblings are not charged with a general responsibility to support each other. Similarly, grandparents are not generally required to support their grandchildren, and in most states, stepparents are not obligated to support their stepchildren.

While there is a long history of differential family law requirements for poor people, sibling deeming has been a major focus of welfare litigation over the last four years. The amendments discussed in this Article largely reversed the progress made toward a more unitary system of family law during the welfare rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, as a result of the increasingly separate system of family law for the poor, the ability of AFDC mothers to control their family life has been further limited, and their economic plight exacerbated.

This Article discusses the AFDC “sibling deeming” amendment, examining both the effect of the amendment on low-income women and children and the interaction of welfare and family law. This interaction takes several forms, each illustrated by some aspect of the sibling deeming amendment. The first is the development of dual track family law through welfare rules. The second is the impact on welfare law of changes in general family law and the impact on general family law of changes in welfare law. The third is the intertwining of the welfare and family court systems as experienced by low-income women and by welfare and family court staff.

Part I of this Article explains how income deeming works. Part II discusses the options that were available to poor women prior to the sibling deeming amendment, and Part III examines the effects of the amendment. Part IV describes various aspects of the interaction between welfare and family law. My analysis is based on an examination of statutes, regulations and case law; literature on the history of family law and social welfare policy; and personal experience gained as a legal services lawyer in welfare and family law since 1979.

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