Burns v. Alcala
420 U.S. 575 (1975)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Burns v. Alcala, 420 U.S. 575 (1975)

Burns v. Alcala

No. 73-1708

Argued January 22, 1975

Decided March 18, 1975

420 U.S. 575

Syllabus

For the purposes of eligibility for benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, § 406(a) of the Social Security Act defines "dependent child" as "a needy child (1) who has been deprived of parental support or care by reason of the death, continued absence from the home, or physical or mental incapacity of a parent, and who is living with his father, mother," or certain other designated relatives, and (2) who is under the age of 18, or under the age of 21 and a student.

Held: The term "dependent child," as so defined, does not include unborn children, and hence States receiving federal financial aid under the AFDC program are not required to offer welfare benefits to pregnant women for their unborn children. Pp. 420 U. S. 578-586.

(a) Under the axiom that words used in a statute are to be given their ordinary meaning absent persuasive reasons to the contrary, and reading the definition of "dependent child" in its statutory context, it is apparent that Congress used the word "child" to refer to an individual already born, with an existence separate from its mother. Pp. 420 U. S. 580-581.

(b) This conclusion is also supported by the limited purpose of the AFDC program to substitute for the practice of removing needy children from their homes, and to free widowed and divorced mothers from the necessity of working, so that they could remain home to supervise their children, and by the fact that the Social Security Act also provides federal funding for prenatal and postnatal health services to mothers and infants, explicitly designed to reduce infant and maternal mortality, rather than for "maternity benefits" to support expectant mothers. Pp. 420 U. S. 581-584.

(c) The doctrine that accords weight to consistent administrative interpretation of a statute does not apply to a Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) regulation allowing States the option of paying AFDC benefits to pregnant women on

Page 420 U. S. 576

behalf of unborn children, where HEW says that the regulation is not based on a construction of the term "dependent child" but on HEW's general authority to make rules for efficient administration of the Act, and where legislative history tends to rebut the claim that Congress, by silence, has acquiesced in the view that unborn children qualify for AFDC payments. Pp. 420 U. S. 584-586.

494 F.2d 743, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 420 U. S. 587. DOUGLAS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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