Kilkenny, Labrecque and Lane. The opinion of the court was delivered by Labrecque, J.A.D.
Defendants Essex County Welfare Board (Board) and Philip K. Lazaro, its Director, appeal from a judgment of the Law Division, dated March 19, 1971, which held that recipients of assistance from the Board under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program who were also obligees under court orders for support were entitled to be offered the opportunity to be placed on a full-payment basis whenever the court-ordered support payments were delinquent by five business days in a single payment period.
The facts with which we are concerned are set forth in the reported opinion of the Law Division, 113 N.J. Super. 99, and need not be repeated in detail. Briefly summarized, the Board is a county agency charged with responsibility for the administration of financial assistance and other services
to needy dependent children and their parents or relatives under the federally funded AFDC program. N.J.S.A. 44:10-2. Plaintiffs herein are recipients of welfare benefits under the AFDC program and brought suit as a class for a declaratory judgment holding invalid certain procedures followed by the Board in the administration of the program. The challenged procedures applied only to recipients of aid under the program who were also obligees under judicial support orders against legally responsible relatives -- most often, deserting fathers. In general, such court orders were based upon nonsupport complaints filed by welfare recipients pursuant to instructions from the Board.
Payments under such orders would be required to be made by the responsible relative either directly to the obligees or through the county probation department. In either case it was the Board's practice in making payments to welfare recipients under the program to deduct, at the beginning of each (monthly) payment period, the full amount of any court-ordered payments of support to become due during that month from the total sum to which the welfare recipient would otherwise be entitled. Thereafter, if the support payment or any part thereof failed to come through or became in default, upon proof to that effect a supplemental assistance check would be issued to make up the difference.
The court below found that in this process the length of time between the start of a payment period and receipt of a supplementary support payment varied from case to case, depending upon at what point in time the welfare client's economic deprivation became so acute as to compel action. It further found that delays were entailed in attempts to report delinquencies either by telephone or personal visits to burdened caseworkers, who were not always available and whose efforts to return such calls were at times frustrated by the recipient's lack of telephone service. Further, after the report was received, time-consuming verifying procedures were required to be completed by the Board before payment would be authorized. It found that the cumulative
effect of these various delays was that three or four weeks could sometimes pass before the needed supplemental assistance check was issued. Exemption from the foregoing delays required that the court-ordered payments be found to be "habitually" delinquent, in which case the welfare client would be placed on the "full payment process" and would thereafter receive the full grant at the beginning of each payment period. Here plaintiffs' challenge is directed to the standards utilized by the Board in determining when a welfare recipient was to be placed on "full payment."
Under the Board's standard, delinquencies were deemed "habitual" where (1) payments had been delinquent in whole or in substantial part for three consecutive months, or (2) payments had been delinquent in whole or substantial part in eight of the preceding 12 months, or (3) supplemental assistance checks had been issued by reason of substantial delinquencies for four of the preceding six months. Plaintiffs maintained below that they should be allowed the full amount of their welfare grant at the beginning of each month, without deduction of the amount ordered to be paid for support by the legally responsible relatives. The Board contended that the withholding practice was lawful and not inconsistent with local and congressional intent as expressed in state and federal legislation and administrative regulations promulgated thereunder.
The class selected for welfare assistance under the AFDC program is "the dependent child," as defined in 42 U.S.C.A. § 606(a). The program is financed largely by the Federal Government on a matching fund basis and is administered by the states. King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 316, 88 S. Ct. 2128, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1118 (1968). States desirous of taking part in the program are required to submit an AFDC plan for the approval of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Id. The state plan must conform with several requirements of the Social Security Act and with rules and regulations promulgated by the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Id. at 317, 88
S. Ct. 2128; 42 U.S.C.A. § 602. One of the statutory requirements is that "aid to families with dependent children * * * shall be furnished with reasonable promptness to all eligible individuals." 42 U.S.C.A. § 602(a)(10); (emphasis added.) See also N.J.S.A. 44:10-3(b).
Each state is permitted considerable latitude in determining its own standard of need as a condition for eligibility under the program. King v. Smith, supra , 392 U.S. at 318, 88 S. Ct. at 2128. New Jersey, by administrative regulations promulgated under N.J.S.A. 44:10-1(c)(3), fixes the standard for an adequate minimal level of living as "a money amount which is sufficient to finance the purchase of those goods and services which are essential for physical health and safety." Categorical Assistance Budget Manual § 102 (the Budget Manual). Thus the condition of ...