APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS.
Rehnquist, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ., joined. Marshall, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan, White, and Blackmun, JJ., joined, post, p. 297.
MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.
Since the Depression of the 1930's, the Government has taken increasingly upon itself the task of insulating the economy at large and the individual from the buffeting of economic fortune. The federal old-age, survivors, and disability insurance provisions of the Social Security Act (SSA) are possibly the pre-eminent examples: attempts to obviate, through a program of forced savings, the economic dislocations that may otherwise accompany old age, disability, or the death of a breadwinner. As an exercise in governmental administration, the social security system is of unprecedented dimension; in fiscal year 1977 nearly 150 million claims were filed.*fn1
Given this magnitude, the number of times these SSA claims have reached this Court warrants little surprise.*fn2 Our
cases evidence a sensitivity to the legislative and administrative problems posed in the design of such a program and in the adjudication of claims on this scale. The problems are generally of two types. The first is categorization.*fn3 In light of the specific dislocations Congress wishes to alleviate, it is necessary to define categories of beneficiaries. The process of categorization presents the difficulties inherent in any line-drawing exercise where the draftsman confronts a universe of potential beneficiaries with different histories and distinct needs. He strives for a level of generality that is administratively practicable, with full appreciation that the included class has members whose "needs" upon a statutorily defined occurrence may not be as marked as those of isolated individuals outside the classification. "General rules are essential if a fund of this magnitude is to be administered with a modicum of efficiency, even though such rules inevitably produce seemingly arbitrary consequences in some individual cases." Califano v. Jobst, 434 U.S. 47, 53 (1977). A process of case-by-case adjudication that would provide a "perfect fit" in theory would increase administrative expenses to a degree that benefit levels would probably be reduced, precluding a
The second type of problem that has been brought to this Court involves the Social Security Administration's procedures for dispute resolution where benefits have been denied, decreased, or terminated because the Administration has concluded that the claimant is not entitled to what he has requested or to what he has received in the past.*fn4 Again the Court has been sensitive to the special difficulties presented by the mass administration of the social security system. After the legislative task of classification is completed, the administrative goal is accuracy and promptness in the actual allocation of benefits pursuant to those classifications. The magnitude of that task is not amenable to the full trappings of the adversary process lest again benefit levels be threatened by the costs of administration. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 343-349 (1976); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 406 (1971). Fairness can best be assured by Congress and the Social Security Administration through sound managerial techniques and quality control designed to achieve an acceptable rate of error.
This case involves a challenge to a categorization. Appellees Norman J. Boles and Margaret Gonzales represent a nationwide class of all illegitimate children and their mothers who are allegedly ineligible for insurance benefits under the SSA because in each case the mother was never married to the wage earner who fathered her child. Section 202 (g)(1) of the SSA, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 402 (g)(1), only makes "mother's insurance benefits" available to widows and divorced
wives.*fn5 By virtue of this Court's decision in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975), "mother's insurance benefits" are available to widowers, leaving the title
of these benefits a misnomer. There we held that the provision of such benefits only to women violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Norman W. Boles died in 1971. He left a widow, Nancy L. Boles, and their two children, who were each promptly awarded child's insurance benefits. Nancy Boles receives mother's insurance benefits. Appellee Gonzales lived with Norman W. Boles for three years before his marriage to Nancy Boles and bore a son by him, Norman J. Boles.*fn6 Gonzales sought mother's insurance benefits for herself and child's benefits for her son. Her son was granted benefits, but her personal request was denied because she had never been married to the wage earner.
Gonzales exhausted her administrative remedies and then filed this suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. The District Court certified a class of "all illegitimate children and their mothers who are presently ineligible for Mother's Insurance Benefits solely because 42 U. S. C. § 402 (g)(1) restricts such benefits to women who were once married to the fathers of their children." App. to Juris. Statement 1a-2a. The District Court found that § 202 (g)(1) of the SSA was unconstitutional. There were three steps in its logic.
First, it read Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, supra, as holding that mother's insurance benefits are chiefly for the benefit of the child. It quoted from a passage in that opinion where this Court observed:
"[Section] 402 (g), linked as it is directly to responsibility for minor children, was intended to permit women to elect
not to work and to devote themselves to the care of children. . . .
"That the purpose behind § 402 (g) is to provide children deprived of one parent with the opportunity for the personal attention of the other could not be more clear in the legislative history." 420 U.S., at 648-649.
On the basis of this language it then concluded that for purposes of equal protection analysis, the pertinent discrimination in this case is not unequal treatment of unwed mothers, but rather discrimination against illegitimate children. In its final step the District Court held that the application of § 202 (g)(1) at issue here is unconstitutional, relying on cases of this Court invalidating on constitutional grounds legislation that discriminated against illegitimates solely because of their status at birth. E. g., Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164 (1972); Gomez v. Perez, 409 U.S. 535 (1973); Jimenez v. Weinberger, 417 U.S. 628 (1974); Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762 (1977).
We noted probable jurisdiction, 439 U.S. 1126 (1979), and now conclude that the District Court incorrectly analyzed the equal protection issue in this case. We accordingly reverse.
As this Court noted in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, supra, at 643, § 202 (g) "was added to the Social Security Act in 1939 as one of a large number of amendments designed to 'afford more adequate protection to the family as a unit.' H. R. Rep. No. 728, 76th Cong., 1st Sess., 7 (1939)." The benefits created in 1939 "were intended to provide persons dependent on the wage earner with protection against the economic hardship occasioned by loss of the wage earner's support." Califano v. Jobst, 434 U.S., at 50; see Mathews v. De Castro, 429 U.S. 181, 185-186 (1976). Specifically, § 202 (g) "was intended to permit women [and now men] to elect not to work and to devote themselves to care of children." 420 U.S., at 648. The animating concern was the economic dislocation that occurs when the wage earner dies and the surviving
parent is left with the choice to stay home and care for the children or to go to work, a hardship often exacerbated by years outside the labor force. "Mother's insurance benefits" were intended to make the choice to stay home easier. But the program was not designed to be, and we think is not now, a general system for the dispensing of child-care subsidies.*fn7 Instead, Congress sought to limit the category of beneficiaries to those who actually suffer economic dislocation upon the death of a wage earner and are likely to be confronted at that juncture with the choice between employment or the assumption of full-time child-care responsibilities.
In this light there is an obvious logic in the exclusion from § 202 (g) of women or men who have never married the wage earner. "Both tradition and common experience support the conclusion that marriage is an event which normally marks an important change in economic status." Califano v. Jobst, supra, at 53. Congress could reasonably conclude that a woman who has never been married to the wage earner is far less likely to be dependent upon the wage earner at the time of his death. He was never legally required to support her and therefore was ...