Bowen v. Gilliard

483 U. S. 587

June 25, 1987

To simplify things things slightly, a 1984 law had altered welfare, so that the amount of welfare money a family would receive was reduced according to how much money that family received in child support payments. Obviously, this meant that many poor families had their overall incomes reduced. Gilliard, a mother of seven, contended that the new law violated both Due Process, and the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause, as it created undue coercion on families to make hard choices, and deprived individual children of their untrammeled right to child support.

The Court, with Stevens writing, upheld the law 6-3. When deciding how to spend money, Congress had broad discretion, and the desire to save millions of tax dollars was a rational reason for altering welfare. That the law sometimes affected family living arrangements did not subject it to higher scrutiny, so there was no Due Process violation. Stevens held it was not a taking either. Although the accounting had some confusing labels, the child support still belonged to the child. Moreover, neither welfare nor child support was an inalienable right under the Constitution, and each one individually was generally accepted to be liable to alteration through law. While the law could sometimes be harsh, it was the job of Congress to change it, not the courts.

Brennan’s dissent, joined by Marshall, largely talked past the majority opinion. Picking up on his theme in Rivera regarding the importance of parent-child relationships, he lambasted the law because under its accounting process, the child support money was designated as “state” money. Because the state rather than the parent was now the ‘official’ dispenser of the cash, Brennan argued that the law essentially severed the parent-child bond. He then recounted sob stories of a father who stopped paying child support after the law’s passage, and a child who went to live with her father so her mother and siblings could better share welfare money. Brennan could not stomach a law which caused families to make these sorts of gut-wrenching decisions.

Toward the end of his opinion, Brennan offered a detailed description of a potential welfare law that he would deem Constitutional. In one of the most transparent lies all year, he added that his prescriptions did “not represent an effort to second-guess Congress as to the most effective use of its funds, nor does it represent a threat to the discretion that program officials must inevitably exercise.” Blackmun said in his dissent that he mostly agreed with Brennan’s arguments.

This, by far, was the most depressing case of the entire term. Your heart has to break for all of the children in impoverished single parent homes. It’s hard to take Brennan’s angry moralizing about the poor children seriously though, because it was liberals like him who put so many million innocent children in these terrible situations in the first place. It was liberals like him who worked feverishly to destigmatize divorce, fornication, single parenthood, and monogamy. They remained silent in the face of the mass resulting family destruction, and then belatedly spoke up only when the government didn’t provide as much aid as it probably should have in the brutal aftermath.


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