In June 1968, the Supreme Court issued a 9–0 ruling giving back Sylvester Smith and her four young children their welfare benefits, and striking down the “man in the house” rule. At the time, Alabama was one of a number of states, many in the South, that removed families from the welfare rolls if the mother was having sexual relations with a man, even if he was not living with her and was not supporting her children. The Court’s ruling restored welfare rights to as many as 500,000 children nationwide and sent a message that welfare caseworkers had to keep out of poor people’s bedrooms.
The Smith decision was one of a long line of cases in the 1960s recognizing new rights for the poor. If the Court had continued down that poverty-law path, poor people today would have significantly more legal rights.
Instead, 50 years ago, the Court shifted rightward. Although it has long enjoyed a reputation as the defender of society’s most disadvantaged, the Supreme Court is now considered, on many issues, an enemy of poor Americans.
The modern story of the poor in the Supreme Court begins in the early 1960s. A prosperous America was becoming more concerned about fighting poverty and President John F. Kennedy had made two appointments that created a liberal majority on the Court. The justices proceeded to hand down a series of landmark decisions that sided with the poor, including one in 1963, recognizing indigent defendants’ right to appointed counsel, and another in 1966, ending the poll tax that kept many poor people from voting. These rulings were remarkable not only for their holdings, but for the sympathy the Court showed. “We have come to recognize,” it declared in one, “that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty.”