United States Department of Agriculture v. Moreno/Opinion of the Court

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United States Department of Agriculture v. Moreno
Opinion of the Court by William J. Brennan
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Mr. Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to consider the constitutionality of § 3 (e) of the Food Stamp Act of 1964, 7 U.S.C. § 2012 (e), as amended in 1971, 84 Stat. 2048, which, with certain exceptions, excludes from participation in the food stamp program any household containing an individual who is unrelated to any other member of the household. In practical effect, § 3 (e) creates two classes of persons for food stamp purposes: one class is composed of those individuals who live in households all of whose members are related to one another, and the other class consists of those individuals who live in households containing one or more members who are unrelated to the rest. The latter class of persons is denied federal food assistance. A three-judge District Court for the District of Columbia held this classification invalid as violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. 345 F.Supp. 310 (1972). We noted probable jurisdiction. 409 U.S. 1036 (1972). We affirm.


The federal food stamp program was established in 1964 in an effort to alleviate hunger and malnutrition among the more needy segments of our society. 7 U.S.C. § 2011. Eligibility for participation in the program is determined on a household rather than an individual basis. 7 CFR § 271.3 (a). An eligible household purchases sufficient food stamps to provide that household with a nutritionally adequate diet. The household pays for the stamps at a reduced rate based upon its size and cumulative income. The food stamps are then used to purchase food at retail stores, and the Government redeems the stamps at face value, thereby paying the difference between the actual cost of the food and the amount paid by the household for the stamps. See 7 U.S.C. §§ 2013 (a), 2016, 2025 (a).

As initially enacted, § 3 (e) defined a "household" as "a group of related or non-related individuals, who are not residents of an institution or boarding house, but are living as one economic unit sharing common cooking facilities and for whom food is customarily purchased in common."[1] In January 1971, however, Congress redefined the term "household" so as to include only groups of related individuals.[2] Pursuant to this amendment, the Secretary of Agriculture promulgated regulations rendering ineligible for participation in the program any "household" whose members are not "all related to each other."[3]

Appellees in this case consist of several groups of individuals who allege that, although they satisfy the income eligibility requirements for federal food assistance, they have nevertheless been excluded from the program solely because the persons in each group are not "all related to each other." Appellee Jacinta Moreno, for example, is a 56-year-old diabetic who lives with Ermina Sanchez and the latter's three children. They share common living expenses, and Mrs. Sanchez helps to care for appellee. Appellee's monthly income, derived from public assistance, is $75; Mrs. Sanchez receives $133 per month from public assistance. The household pays $135 per month for rent, gas, and electricity, of which appellee pays $ 50. Appellee spends $10 per month for transportation to a hospital for regular visits, and $5 per month for laundry. That leaves her $10 per month for food and other necessities. Despite her poverty, appellee has been denied federal food assistance solely because she is unrelated to the other members of her household. Moreover, although Mrs. Sanchez and her three children were permitted to purchase $108 worth of food stamps per month for $18, their participation in the program will be terminated if appellee Moreno continues to live with them.

Appellee Sheilah Hejny is married and has three children. Although the Hejnys are indigent, they took in a 20-year-old girl, who is unrelated to them, because "we felt she had emotional problems." The Hejnys receive $144 worth of food stamps each month for $14. If they allow the 20-year-old girl to continue to live with them, they will be denied food stamps by reason of § 3 (e).

Appellee Victoria Keppler has a daughter with an acute hearing deficiency. The daughter requires special instruction in a school for the deaf. The school is located in an area in which appellee could not ordinarily afford to live. Thus, in order to make the most of her limited resources, appellee agreed to share an apartment near the school with a woman who, like appellee, is on public assistance. Since appellee is not related to the woman, appellee's food stamps have been, and will continue to be, cut off if they continue to live together.

These and two other groups of appellees instituted a class action against the Department of Agriculture, its Secretary, and two other departmental officials, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the enforcement of the 1971 amendment of § 3 (e) and its implementing regulations. In essence, appellees contend,[4] and the District Court held, that the "unrelated person" provision of § 3 (e) creates an irrational classification in violation of the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.[5] We agree.


Under traditional equal protection analysis, a legislative classification must be sustained if the classification itself is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest. See Jefferson v. Hackney, 406 U.S. 535, 546 (1972); Richardson v. Belcher, 404 U.S. 78, 81 (1971); Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485 (1970); McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 426 (1961). The purposes of the Food Stamp Act were expressly set forth in the congressional "declaration of policy":

"It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress...to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's population and raise levels of nutrition among low-income households. The Congress hereby finds that the limited food purchasing power of low-income households contributes to hunger and malnutrition among members of such households. The Congress further finds that increased utilization of food in establishing and maintaining adequate national levels of nutrition will promote the distribution in a beneficial manner of our agricultural abundances and will strengthen our agricultural economy, as well as result in more orderly marketing and distribution of food. To alleviate such hunger and malnutrition, a food stamp program is herein authorized which will permit low-income households to purchase a nutritionally adequate diet through normal channels of trade." 7 U.S.C. § 2011.

The challenged statutory classification (households of related persons versus households containing one or more unrelated persons) is clearly irrelevant to the stated purposes of the Act. As the District Court recognized, "the relationships among persons constituting one economic unit and sharing cooking facilities have nothing to do with their abilities to stimulate the agricultural economy by purchasing farm surpluses, or with their personal nutritional requirements." 345 F.Supp., at 313.

Thus, if it is to be sustained, the challenged classification must rationally further some legitimate governmental interest other than those specifically stated in the congressional "declaration of policy." Regrettably, there is little legislative history to illuminate the purposes of the 1971 amendment of § 3 (e).[6] The legislative history that does exist, however, indicates that that amendment was intended to prevent so-called "hippies" and "hippie communes" from participating in the food stamp program. See H. R. Conf. Rep. No. 91-1793, p. 8; 116 Cong. Rec. 44439 (1970) (Sen. Holland). The challenged classification clearly cannot be sustained by reference to this congressional purpose. For if the constitutional conception of "equal protection of the laws" means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest. As a result, "[a] purpose to discriminate against hippies cannot, in and of itself and without reference to [some independent] considerations in the public interest, justify the 1971 amendment." 345 F.Supp., at 314 n. 11.

Although apparently conceding this point, the Government maintains that the challenged classification should nevertheless be upheld as rationally related to the clearly legitimate governmental interest in minimizing fraud in the administration of the food stamp program.[7] In essence, the Government contends that, in adopting the 1971 amendment, Congress might rationally have thought (1) that households with one or more unrelated members are more likely than "fully related" households to contain individuals who abuse the program by fraudulently failing to report sources of income or by voluntarily remaining poor; and (2) that such households are "relatively unstable," thereby increasing the difficulty of detecting such abuses. But even if we were to accept as rational the Government's wholly unsubstantiated assumptions concerning the differences between "related" and "unrelated" households, we still could not agree with the Government's conclusion that the denial of essential federal food assistance to all otherwise eligible households containing unrelated members constitutes a rational effort to deal with these concerns.

At the outset, it is important to note that the Food Stamp Act itself contains provisions, wholly independent of § 3 (e), aimed specifically at the problems of fraud and of the voluntarily poor. For example, with certain exceptions, § 5 (c) of the Act, 7 U.S.C. § 2014 (c), renders ineligible for assistance any household containing "an able-bodied adult person between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five" who fails to register for, and accept, offered employment. Similarly, §§ 14 (b) and (c), 7 U.S.C. §§ 2023 (b) and (c), specifically impose strict criminal penalties upon any individual who obtains or uses food stamps fraudulently.[8] The existence of these provisions necessarily casts considerable doubt upon the proposition that the 1971 amendment could rationally have been intended to prevent those very same abuses. See Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 452 (1972); cf. Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330, 353-354 (1972).

Moreover, in practical effect, the challenged classification simply does not operate so as rationally to further the prevention of fraud. As previously noted, § 3 (e) defines an eligible "household" as "a group of related individuals...[1] living as one economic unit [2] sharing common cooking facilities [and 3] for whom food is customarily purchased in common." Thus, two unrelated persons living together and meeting all three of these conditions would constitute a single household ineligible for assistance. If financially feasible, however, these same two individuals can legally avoid the "unrelated person" exclusion simply by altering their living arrangements so as to eliminate any one of the three conditions. By so doing, they effectively create two separate "households," both of which are eligible for assistance. See Knowles v. Butz, 358 F.Supp. 228 (ND Cal. 1973). Indeed, as the California Director of Social Welfare has explained:[9]

"The 'related household' limitations will eliminate many households from eligibility in the Food Stamp Program. It is my understanding that the Congressional intent of the new regulations are specifically aimed at the 'hippies' and 'hippie communes.' Most people in this category can and will alter their living arrangements in order to remain eligible for food stamps. However, the AFDC mothers who try to raise their standard of living by sharing housing will be affected. They will not be able to utilize the altered living patterns in order to continue to be eligible without giving up their advantage of shared housing costs."

Thus, in practical operation, the 1971 amendment excludes from participation in the food stamp program, not those persons who are "likely to abuse the program" but, rather, only those persons who are so desperately in need of aid that they cannot even afford to alter their living arrangements so as to retain their eligibility. Traditional equal protection analysis does not require that every classification be drawn with precise "'mathematical nicety.'" Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S., at 485. But the classification here in issue is not only "imprecise," it is wholly without any rational basis. The judgment of the District Court holding the "unrelated person" provision invalid under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment is therefore



  1. . 78 Stat. 703 (emphasis added). The act provided further that "the term 'household' shall also mean a single individual living alone who has cooking facilities and who purchases and prepares food for home consumption." Ibid.
  2. . 84 Stat. 2048. The 1971 amendment did not affect certain groups of nonrelated individuals over 60 years of age. As amended, § 3 (e) now provides:
  3. . Title 7 CFR § 270.2 (jj) provides:
  4. . Appellees also argued that the regulations themselves were invalid because beyond the scope of the authority conferred upon the Secretary by the statute. The District Court rejected that contention, and appellees have not pressed that argument on appeal. Moreover, appellees did not challenge the constitutionality of the statute's reliance on "households" rather than "individuals" as the basic unit of the food stamp program. We therefore intimate no view on that question.
  5. . "While the Fifth Amendment contains no equal protection clause, it does forbid discrimination that is 'so unjustifiable as to be violative of due process.'" Schneider v. Rusk, 377 U.S. 163, 168 (1964); see Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677, 680 n. 5 (1973); Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 641-642 (1969); Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954).
  6. . Indeed, the amendment first materialized, bare of committee consideration, during a conference committee's consideration of differing House and Senate bills.
  7. . The Government initially argued to the District Court that the challenged classification might be justified as a means to foster "morality." In rejecting that contention, the District Court noted that "interpreting the amendment as an attempt to regulate morality would raise serious constitutional questions." 345 F.Supp. 310, 314. Indeed, citing this Court's decisions in Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969), and Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972), the District Court observed that it was doubtful, at best, whether Congress, "in the name of morality," could "infringe the rights to privacy and freedom of association in the home." 345 F.Supp., at 314. (Emphasis in original.) Moreover, the court also pointed out that the classification established in § 3 (e) was not rationally related "to prevailing notions of morality, since it in terms disqualifies all households of unrelated individuals, without reference to whether a particular group contains both sexes." Id., at 315. The Government itself has now abandoned the "morality" argument. See Brief for Appellants 9.
  8. . Title 7 U.S.C. §§ 2023 (b) and (c) provide:
  9. . App. 43.