Shapiro v. Thompson (1969)

Absent a compelling state interest, state laws that impose residency requirements to obtain welfare assistance violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Such laws also violate the constitutional right to travel by inhibiting migration by needy persons into the state.

Citation: 394 U.S. 618 (1969)
Date decided: Apr 21, 1969
Longer case name: Shapiro, Commissioner of Welfare of Connecticut v. Thompson
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Connecticut, District of Columbia, and Pennsylvania
Topic(s):Due process, Equal protection, Public assistance, Residency duration requirements, and Right to travel
Lists:Important cases and zGreatest hits (future)
Attorneys:Archibald Cox argued the cause for appellees in all three cases on the reargument. With him on the brief were Peter S. Smith and Howard Lesnick (Neighborhood Legal Services of DC). Brian L. Hollander argued the cause pro hac vice for appellee in No. 9 on the original argument. With him on the brief were Norman Dorsen and William D. Graham. Mr. Smith argued the cause for appellees in No. 33 on the original argument. With him on the brief were Joel J. Rabin, Jonathan Weiss, and Joseph F. Dugan. Thomas K. Gilhool (Community Legal Services, Philadelphia) argued the cause pro hac vice for appellees in No. 34 on the original argument. With him on the brief were Harvey N. Schmidt, Paul Bender, and Mr. Lesnick.
Others involved:Briefs of amici curiae in support of appellee in No. 9 were filed by Arthur L. Schiff for Bexar County Legal Aid Association; by Eugene M. Swann for the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County; and by A. L. Wirin, Fred Okrand, Laurence R. Sperber, and Melvin L. Wulf for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. Brief of amicus curiae in support of appellees in No. 33 was filed by John F. Nagle for the National Federation of the Blind. Briefs of amici curiae in support of appellees in all three cases were filed by J. Lee Rankin and Stanley Buchsbaum for the City of New York; by Joseph B. Robison, Carlos Israels, and Carl Rachlin for the American Jewish Congress et al.; and by Charles L. Hellman and Leah Marks for the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law et al.
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Case Importance

Sheldon Goldman, Oxford Reference: “This decision provided a precedent for successful attacks on other residency requirements such as those for voting and for practicing law. The impact of the decision on the poor was considerable and as a result, many thousands received welfare assistance who otherwise would not have received it.” Elisa Minoff, “Legal Services Attorneys and Migrant Advocates Join Forces: Shapiro v. Thompson”, in “The Poverty Law Canon: Exploring the Major Cases”, edited by Failinger & Rosser, University of Michigan Press, 2016: “Durational residence requirements had made life difficult for poor people on the move since the colonial era. Descended from Elizabethan-­ era poor laws that required ‘settlement’ in a community in order to be eligible for relief, residence requirements limited public assistance to those who had lived in a state or locality for the length of time stipulated by the state’s statute, often one year…. Shapiro v. Thompson was very much of its moment. It was made possible by the new federal funding disbursed by the Office of Economic Opportunity as part of the War on Poverty and by the law review articles, conferences, strategy-­focused ‘back up centers,’ and storefront legal services offices that funding supported. When the Supreme Court held residence requirements unconstitutional in 1969, the decision quickly became a landmark in the new area of social welfare law. Many contemporaries saw it as a step toward establishing a right to welfare. But Shapiro v. Thompson was not just about welfare and welfare rights. It was also about migration and the right to move.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)

(Three cases from Pennsylvania, Connecticut and District of Columbia bundled together.)



These appeals are from decisions of three-judge District Courts holding unconstitutional Connecticut, Pennsylvania, or District of Columbia statutory provisions which deny welfare assistance to persons who are residents and meet all other eligibility requirements except that they have not resided within the jurisdiction for at least a year immediately preceding their applications for assistance. Appellees’ main contention on reargument is that the prohibition of benefits to residents of less than one year creates a classification which constitutes an invidious discrimination denying them equal protection of the laws. Appellants argue that the waiting period is needed to preserve the fiscal integrity of their public assistance programs, as persons who require welfare assistance during their first year of residence are likely to become continuing burdens on welfare programs. Appellants also seek to justify the classification as a permissible attempt to discourage indigents from entering a State solely to obtain larger benefits, and to distinguish between new and old residents on the basis of the tax contributions they have made to the community. Certain appellants rely in addition on the following administrative and related governmental objectives: facilitating the planning of welfare budgets, providing an objective test of residency, minimizing the opportunity for recipients fraudulently to receive payments from more than one jurisdiction, and encouraging early entry of new residents into the labor force. Connecticut and Pennsylvania also argue that Congress approved the imposition of the one-year requirement in 402 (b) of the Social Security Act.

1. The statutory prohibition of benefits to residents of less than a year creates a classification which denies equal protection of the laws because the interests allegedly served by the classification either may not constitutionally be promoted by government or are not compelling governmental interests. P. 627.

2. Since the Constitution guarantees the right of interstate movement, the purpose of deterring the migration of indigents into a State is impermissible and cannot serve to justify the classification created by the one-year waiting period. Pp. 629-631.

3. A State may no more try to fence out those indigents who seek higher welfare payments than it may try to fence out indigents generally. Pp. 631-632.

4. The classification may not be sustained as an attempt to distinguish between new and old residents on the basis of the contribution they have made to the community through the payment of taxes because the Equal Protection Clause prohibits the States from apportioning benefits or services on the basis of the past tax contributions of its citizens. Pp. 632-633.

5. In moving from jurisdiction to jurisdiction appellees were exercising a constitutional right, and any classification which penalizes the exercise of that right, unless shown to be necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest, is unconstitutional. P. 634.

6. Appellants do not use and have no need to use the one-year requirement for the administrative and governmental purposes suggested, and under the standard of a compelling state interest, that requirement clearly violates the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 634-638.

7. Section 402 (b) of the Social Security Act does not render the waiting-period requirements constitutional. Pp. 638-641.

(a) That section on its face does not approve, much less prescribe, a one-year requirement, and the legislative history reveals that Congress’ purpose was to curb hardships resulting from excessive residence requirements and not to approve or prescribe any waiting period. Pp. 639-640.

(b) Assuming, arguendo, that Congress did approve the use of a one-year waiting period, it is the responsive state legislation and not 402 (b) which infringes constitutional rights. P. 641.

(c) If the constitutionality of 402 (b) were at issue, that provision, insofar as it permits the one-year waiting period, would be unconstitutional, as Congress may not authorize the States to violate the Equal Protection Clause. P. 641. [394 U.S. 618, 620]

8. The waiting-period requirement in the District of Columbia Code, adopted by Congress as an exercise of federal power, is an unconstitutional discrimination which violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 641-642.

No. 9, 270 F. Supp. 331; No. 33, 279 F. Supp. 22; and No. 34, 277 F. Supp. 65, affirmed.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:57
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