Antell, J.s.c. (temporarily assigned).
Defendant Essex County Welfare Board is a county agency charged with the responsibility for administering financial assistance and other services to needy dependent children and the parent or relative with whom they are living, under the federally-funded Aid to Families With Dependent Children program, hereinafter called AFDC. N.J.S.A. 44:10-2. Plaintiffs are recipients of welfare benefits under AFDC and sue as a class for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief to determine when, within a given payment period, the full amount of financial assistance to which they are admittedly entitled from defendant must be paid.
The members of plaintiffs' class also occupy the status of obligees under judicial support orders entered against legally responsible relatives -- most often deserting fathers -- based upon nonsupport complaints which defendant instructs
plaintiffs to file in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court by reason of the relative's failure to meet his support obligations. Payments thereunder are required to be made either directly to the recipient-obligee by the responsible relative or through the probation department. In either case it is defendant's practice to deduct the amount of the court-ordered obligation from the welfare recipient's entitlements when these are paid at the beginning of each monthly payment period and to reimburse the recipient by the issuance of a supplemental assistance check if the support payment or any part thereof is later shown by the recipient to have been in default.
In this process the length of time between the start of a payment period until the fact of a reportable support order delinquency is perceived varies from case to case. How much anxiety is required to impel a particular welfare client to investigate what has happened to an overdue payment and the point in time at which economic deprivation becomes acute are often governing factors. Additional delays follow in attempts to report the delinquency either by telephone or personal visits to burdened case workers, who are not always available and whose efforts to return such calls are frustrated by the recipient's lack of telephone service. After the report is received, time-consuming verifying procedures are followed by the agency which must be completed before payment is authorized. The cumulative effect thereof is that three to four weeks can sometimes pass before the needed supplemental assistance check is issued.
The practice hereinabove related is departed from, however, where the support obligor is "habitually" delinquent. In this case the recipient is placed on what is called a "full payment process," is paid the full grant at the beginning of each payment period, and defendant applies to the court to be substituted as obligee under the support order. Under standards formulated by defendant, delinquencies are deemed "habitual" where: (1) payments have been delinquent in whole or substantial part for three consecutive months, or
(2) payments have been delinquent in whole or substantial part in eight of the preceding 12 months, or (3) supplemental assistance checks have been issued by reason of substantial delinquencies for four of the preceding six months.
Plaintiffs maintain that they are entitled to the full amount of their welfare grant at the beginning of each month without deduction for the amounts ordered paid for their support by legally responsible relatives. Defendant responds that its practice of withholding such moneys is in all respects lawful and not inconsistent with local and congressional intent as expressed in state and federal legislation and administrative regulations promulgated thereunder. This is the controversy.
It is first noted that defendant has expressly disavowed any defense to the action based upon plaintiffs' failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
AFDC is one of three major categorical public assistance programs established by the Social Security Act of 1935. The class thereby selected for welfare assistance is the "dependent child," who is defined in 42 U.S.A. § 606(a) as a
There are also specified age qualifications.
The state plan must conform with numerous requirements and conditions prescribed by the federal legislation and with rules and regulations promulgated by the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. 42 U.S.C. § 602. King v. Smith, supra , 88 S. Ct. at 2133; Rosado v. Wyman , 397 U.S. 397, 90 S. Ct. 1207, 1216, 25 L. Ed. 2d 442 (1970). One such requirement is that "aid to families with dependent children shall be furnished with reasonable promptness to all eligible individuals." 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(10). Accordingly, the New Jersey legislation expressly provides that "assistance shall be furnished with reasonable promptness to or for all eligible individuals." N.J.S.A. 44:10-3(b). The benefits are received as a matter of statutory entitlement for persons qualified to receive them and not simply as a matter of benevolence.
From its founding the Nation's basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders. We have come to recognize that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty. This perception, against the background of our traditions, has significantly influenced the development of the contemporary public assistance system. Welfare, by meeting the basic demands of subsistence, can help bring within the reach of the poor the same opportunities that are available to others to participate meaningfully in the life of the community. At the same time, welfare guards against the societal malaise that may flow from a widespread sense of unjustified frustration and insecurity. Public assistance, then, is not mere charity, but a means to "promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." The same governmental interests which counsel the provision of welfare, counsel as well its uninterrupted provision to those eligible to receive it; pre-termination evidentiary hearings are indispensable to that end. [ Goldberg v. Kelly , 397 U.S. 254, 90 S. Ct. 1011, 1019, 25 L. Ed. 2d 287 (1970)]
The utilitarian basis of this legislation is illuminated in Sen. Rep. No. 628, 74th Cong., 1st Sess. , 16-17 (1935), as noted in the dissenting opinion of Justice Douglas in Dandridge v. Williams , 397 ...