ENGEL, Senior Circuit Judge.
This case is about one state's efforts to lead welfare recipients down the path to self-sufficiency. At issue is the proper implementation of the Earned Income Disregard ("EID"),
Defendant C. Patrick Babcock is the Director of the Michigan Department of Social Services ("MDSS"), the agency responsible for implementing Michigan's AFDC program. Plaintiff Darlene Smith is a recipient of AFDC in Michigan who recently quit her job at a nursing home "without cause." The term "without cause" indicates that Smith's unemployment is "voluntary"—she left her previous job without being fired and without complaining of mistreatment. Smith brings this class action on behalf of all Michigan AFDC recipients who, like her, voluntarily quit their jobs. She attacks the MDSS policy of refusing, for the month in which she quit, to augment her AFDC benefits with an EID work incentive bonus.
I. AFDC, Welfare Dependency, and the Earned Income Disregard
AFDC provides financial assistance to needy children and their families. 42 U.S.C. § 601. State and federal agencies share responsibility for implementation of the AFDC program. States like Michigan wishing to participate in the AFDC program submit plans to the Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") for approval. Id. § 602(b). A state-administered AFDC program must comply with federal law. See King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 333 n. 34, 88 S.Ct. 2128, 2141 n. 34, 20 L.Ed.2d 1118 (1968); Boettger v. Bowen, 923 F.2d 1183, 1185 (6th Cir.1991).
AFDC was established by the Social Security Act of 1935. See Title IV, § 401, 49 Stat. 620, 627-29 (1935). Although welfare programs such as AFDC were initially conceived as temporary relief measures, we have sadly come to recognize that some welfare recipients may never achieve self-sufficiency.
The battle against welfare dependency is often viewed in terms of setting the proper incentives.
II. The Case of Darlene Smith
In enacting the EID, Congress expressed the hope that "this provision will furnish incentives for members of public assistance families to take employment and, in many cases, increase their earnings to the point where they become self-supporting." S.REP. No. 744, 90th Cong., 1st Sess. 158 (1967), reprinted in 1967 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2834, 2995. When Darlene Smith responded to this incentive by finding a job at a nursing home, the MDSS awarded her an EID bonus. Smith continued to claim and receive increased benefits as a result of the EID through December, 1988. But that is where her story departs from the Congressional vision. Although Smith temporarily "increase[d] [her] earnings," she never "bec[ame] self-supporting," because she voluntarily quit her job at the nursing home on January 24, 1989. We are unable to say why Smith no longer found the EID work incentive attractive, because her decision to cease working and return to welfare dependency is explained nowhere in her appellate brief.
The dispute giving rise to this appeal began when Smith informed the MDSS at the end of January, 1989, that she no longer planned to work at the nursing home. Because Smith had worked for part of January, she claimed a work incentive bonus from the MDSS, despite the fact that she had quit her job. The MDSS denied her the January EID, and refused to disregard her January earnings in calculating her benefits. The MDSS reduced her welfare payment to take into consideration her pre-termination January income. The MDSS informed Smith that it would not disregard income earned for any month in which a recipient voluntarily quits a job.
Smith brought this action to challenge Michigan's refusal to grant her a work incentive bonus for the month in which she voluntarily quit her job. Smith concedes that the EID was designed to reward recipients who choose to work, but she argues that Congress never intended to punish recipients who choose not to work. In her view, the EID is a carrot, not a stick.
III. The Scope of Judicial Review of Administrative Regulations
To begin our analysis, we must frankly acknowledge what should be obvious: courts are not administrative agencies, and judges are not administrators. In the context of administrative law, the Supreme Court has admonished us to adhere to the
IV. The Proper Interpretation of the EID
Congress authorized the EID work incentive bonus by instructing AFDC administrators to disregard approximately one-third of a recipient's income in calculating the level of benefits.
In this suit, Smith challenges Michigan's policy of refusing to award the EID work incentive bonus for the month in which she quit. She argues that section 602(a)(8)(A) requires the MDSS to presumptively disregard a portion of her income. She construes the EID denials in section 602(a)(8)(B) as permitting the agency to respond to her quitting in only one way: by using her income for the month following the month in which she quit to reduce her benefits for that month. In other words, Smith claims that her February income, if she had any, could be included to reduce her February benefits, but her pre-termination January income can not be included to reduce her January benefits.
Smith argues that the following "plain language" of the statute ineluctably leads to her construction of the EID denials:
42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(8)(B)(i)(I).
Smith concedes that this language permits the MDSS to deny the EID in certain circumstances, but she argues that the agency's decision to deny her the EID for the month in which she quit is not one of those circumstances. Smith focuses on the language in
In contrast, the MDSS reads 602(a)(8)(A) and (B) as establishing an incentive system which encourages employment by rewarding recipients who work. The agency would allow Smith to profit from the EID while she remains employed, but it would deny her the EID for the month in which she voluntarily quit her job. The agency argues that the promotion of employment which is the EID's objective will be frustrated by rewarding individuals like Smith who quit a decent job without cause. A January EID denial would prevent Smith from claiming the work bonus after voluntarily terminating her employment.
Smith cites no legislative history indicating that Congress wanted recipients who choose not to work to benefit from the EID. She does, However, offer a non-punitive justification for the existence of the EID denials. Smith argues that Congress wanted to prevent AFDC applicants from temporarily reducing their income to qualify for benefits, then immediately augmenting their income to profit from the EID.
Smith points to the following extract from the legislative history to bolster her argument:
S.REP. No. 744, supra, at 2996.
Smith is correct that one purpose of the EID denials was to thwart abusive techniques employed by applicants seeking to qualify for AFDC and profit from the EID. However, it is an entirely different matter for her to assert that the type of behavior she describes is the only behavior Congress hoped to impact in implementing the EID and EID denials.
The consistent Congressional intent embodied in the EID provisions is a desire to encourage employment and eventual self-sufficiency on the part of AFDC recipients. As we noted above, Congress "believe[d] that this provision [would] furnish incentives for members of public assistance families to take employment and, in many cases, increase their earnings to the point where they become self-supporting." S.REP. No. 744, at 2995 (emphasis added). The legislative history for the EID is replete with further discussion of the incentives Congress hoped would encourage recipients to work:
Id. at 2994-95.
These passages express what we understand to be the unequivocal intent of Congress to encourage employment among welfare recipients, with the ultimate aim of removing these individuals from the welfare rolls. Cf. Shea v. Vialpando, 416 U.S. 251, 264, 94 S.Ct. 1746, 1755, 40 L.Ed.2d 120
We reject Smith's contention that the terms of section 602(a)(8)(B) are so clear and unambiguous that we must embrace the interpretation she promotes. As we noted in another context, the language of 602(a)(8)(B) "is not the easiest to understand." Boettger, 923 F.2d at 1187. In such a situation, when the disputed provision permits a range of interpretations, a presumption arises in favor of the agency's construction of the statute it must implement. See K Mart, 486 U.S. at 292, 108 S.Ct. at 1818; Chevron, 467 U.S. at 842-45, 104 S.Ct. at 2781-83; Red Lion, 395 U.S. at 381, 89 S.Ct. at 1802; Boettger, 923 F.2d at 1186. The MDSS' implementation of the EID is permissible because it promotes Congress' primary goal of encouraging employment among welfare recipients. See S.REP. No. 744, supra.
Our decision to defer to the MDSS' construction of the EID is bolstered by our conclusion that the alternative construction offered by Smith would render portions of the statutory text meaningless as applied to the AFDC recipients in her factual circumstances. We are mindful of the principle that interpretations which yield internal inconsistencies or render some portion of the text superfluous are to be avoided. See Lake Cumberland Trust, Inc. v. EPA, 954 F.2d 1218, 1222 (6th Cir.1992) ("[W]e must ... giv[e] effect to each word and mak[e] every effort not to interpret a provision in a manner that renders other provisions of the same statute inconsistent, meaningless or superfluous.") (citing Boise Cascade Corp. v. EPA, 942 F.2d 1427, 1432 (9th Cir.1991)).
Smith's interpretation would permit the MDSS to deny the EID for the month following the month in which she quit. Since Smith quit in January, under this scenario she would be awarded the EID for January but denied the EID for February. But Smith did not work in February, and her method of applying the EID would render the EID denials ineffective as applied to her and many of the members of her class, since they are unemployed during the month following the voluntary termination of their employment.
Smith's interpretation would serve, oddly enough, to reward members of the plaintiff class for working even after they quit their jobs. The MDSS argues that an interpretation which rewards Smith for working despite the fact that she quit is precisely the type of absurdity to be avoided in the construction of statutes. See Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U.S. 564, 575, 102 S.Ct. 3245, 3252, 73 L.Ed.2d 973 (1982) ("interpretations of a statute which would produce absurd results are to be avoided if alternative interpretations consistent with the legislative purpose are available"). Accord United States v. American Trucking Ass'ns, 310 U.S. 534, 543, 60 S.Ct. 1059, 1063, 84 L.Ed. 1345 (1940). Why, the MDSS asks, would Congress reward Smith for quitting her job without cause? And why would Congress deny Smith the EID in February rather than January, when she is unlikely to have any February income? Worst of all, Smith would apply the EID denial in a way that might deter her from seeking new employment in February since the MDSS would have to include any February income in calculating her benefits.
The following hypothetical illustrates the futility of Smith's application of the EID. Let us assume that Smith earned $300 in January before she quit her job at the nursing home, and that she earned nothing in February since she refused to work. Under her approach, she would receive the EID bonus in January despite voluntarily quitting her job. Under the EID formula, supra note
By varying the hypothetical slightly, we can see the dangerous disincentive to employment Smith's approach might create. Assume that instead of remaining unemployed, Smith sought and found a new job beginning February 1. At the same rate of wages for a complete month, Smith would make $400 in February. Smith would preserve the January EID, which is worth $100, but would deny the February EID, which would cost her one-third of $400, or $133. She would lose money because she wanted to work! Such an implementation of the EID would have the effect of penalizing only the voluntary quitter who wants to return to work. One can hardly imagine a more untenable result in light of the overwhelming Congressional desire to encourage welfare recipients to work towards self-sufficiency.
In response to the argument that her interpretation of the EID is "absurd," Smith explains that her construction of the EID makes sense when applied to AFDC applicants, even if it is unreasonable as applied to AFDC recipients. She points out that the EID denial she advocates would prevent an individual applying for AFDC from temporarily reducing her income to qualify for aid, and later returning to work to profit from the EID. Although we recognize that Smith's interpretation might prevent some manipulation by AFDC applicants, we reject her overall approach because it would render the EID denial largely meaningless and often counterproductive as applied to the AFDC recipients in her class.
As we explained earlier, Congress sought, in enacting the EID, to encourage employment by allowing recipients to retain a portion of their income without risking the loss of benefits. Congress also limited the availability of the EID for recipients who refuse to take available employment or voluntarily quit jobs they already have. Congress expressly applied these EID denials to "any child or relative applying for or receiving aid to families with dependant children...." Id. § 602(a)(8)(A)(ii) (emphasis added). The MDSS argues, and we agree, that its interpretation of the EID denials is at least as permissible a construction of the law as Smith's because, unlike Smith, the agency has created an incentive for employment for applicants and recipients, as Congress expressly provided. We simply can not conclude that Smith's interpretation is the only proper construction of the statute, since it does nothing to encourage employment among AFDC recipients, and might well have deterred her from seeking a new job in February.
We recognize that in choosing between the alternative statutory interpretations of the EID denial offered by the parties, it may not be possible to select a single construction which applies to both applicants and recipients with complete effectiveness. Smith's proposal, as we have already detailed, is totally ineffective as applied to most recipients,
In this case, Smith represents at best the interests of herself and other welfare recipients in identical circumstances.
The MDSS regulation challenged by Smith represents one state agency's careful balancing of competing and conflicting policy interests.
KATZ, THE UNDESERVING POOR: FROM THE WAR ON POVERTY TO THE WAR ON WELFARE 9 (1989).
The MDSS has struck one of many permissible balances between paying welfare and encouraging work, and this court can not impose Smith's preference, or our own, on the agency. It is "the agency's province to strike a reasonable balance between competing statutory policies." International Bhd. of Teamsters v. ICC, 801 F.2d 1423, 1430
Chevron, 467 U.S. at 866, 104 S.Ct. at 2793.
We conclude that the MDSS has adopted a permissible interpretation of the EID which encourages recipients to take work and gives meaning to the EID denials as applied to all of the people whose behavior Congress sought to impact. We find no "compelling indications" that the agency's interpretation of the statute is "wrong." Red Lion, 395 U.S. at 381, 89 S.Ct. at 1802. Accordingly, we decline to interfere with Michigan's administration of the AFDC program, since that is a job most appropriately, and in all likelihood most ably, performed by the MDSS and not the federal courts.
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment below is REVERSED.
KENNEDY, Circuit Judge, dissenting.
Because I believe the District Court's interpretation of the Earned Income Disregard ("EID") provision of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children ("AFDC") program was the correct one, I respectfully dissent.
The panel begins its analysis with the principle that the courts should defer to the administrative agency charged with the interpretation of the statute and must therefore defer to the Michigan Department of Social Services' ("MDSS") interpretation. If the interpretation were that of the Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS"), I would agree that deference is required. But Michigan is only one of 50 states. If some states construe the statute one way and others construe it another, deferring courts would reach opposite results as to the meaning of the statutory language. I do not believe the principle of deference to an agency has any application where 50 different state agencies would have to be deferred to.
For the MDSS Deduction Policy to be valid, it must be consistent with the "disregard sanctions" of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(8)(B)(i). To the extent it is inconsistent with the controlling statute, it is invalid. King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 88 S.Ct. 2128, 20 L.Ed.2d 1118 (1968). In deciding whether the state policy is consistent with the federal statute, we look first to the statutory language in an effort to determine its plain meaning. Patterson Trust v. United States, 729 F.2d 1089, 1094 (6th Cir.1984). "Except in `rare and exceptional circumstances,' such as where Congress `expressly indicates' its intent that the plain language of the statutory language be avoided, unambiguous statutory language `is to be regarded as conclusive.'" Id. at 1095 (citations omitted); Public Citizen v. United States Dep't of Justice, 491 U.S. 440, 109 S.Ct. 2558, 105 L.Ed.2d 377 (1989) (citations omitted) (courts will only look to legislative intent "[w]here the plain language of the statute would lead to `patently absurd consequences,' that `Congress could not possibly have intended.'"), id. at 470, 109 S.Ct. at 2574 (Kennedy, J., concurring) (quoting United States v. Brown, 333 U.S. 18, 27, 68 S.Ct. 376, 381, 92 L.Ed. 442 (1948); FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 640, 102 S.Ct. 2054, 2069, 72 L.Ed.2d 376 (1982) (O'Connor, J., dissenting)); Boettger v. Bowen, 923 F.2d 1183, 1191 (6th Cir.1991) (Ryan, J., dissenting) ("Courts may not properly extend statutory language beyond its plain meaning in order to reach a result that is consistent with Congress' probable intention. Our business is to determine what Congress said, not what it probably intended.").
Here, the statutory language at issue provides that "with respect to any month, the State agency shall not disregard ... any earned income of any one of the persons specified in subparagraph (A)(ii) if such person terminated his employment or reduced earned income without good cause within such period (of not less than thirty days) preceding such month...." 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(8)(B)(i)(I). Similarly, the HHS regulations implementing the AFDC program provide that:
45 C.F.R. § 233.20(a)(11)(iii) (emphasis added). I agree with the District Court that the phrase "any month" in section 602(a)(8)(B)(i)(I) refers to the month in which the recipient earned income and that the subsequent use of the phrase "such month" clearly refers back to and is synonymous with "any month."
Consequently, the unambiguous statutory language, read in its common and generally understood sense, rather plainly does not authorize the MDSS to deny Smith the benefit of EIDs for income earned in January (the job-quit month), and the MDSS does not seem to claim that a literal straightforward reading of the statutory language, unaided by interpretation, warrants any other conclusion. The MDSS instead argues that common sense suggests that Congress must have intended to permit state agencies to disallow EIDs in the month a recipient terminates her employment without cause, given its overall purpose in enacting the legislation. Specifically, the MDSS argues that a literal interpretation of the EID penalty provision and implementing regulation renders them almost meaningless as applied to AFDC applicants or recipients who terminate employment because if (as happened here) an applicant quits her job in January, she is unlikely to have any earned income in February which would be subject to the EID penalty. While common sense might support this argument, the Supreme Court has said that:
Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Asphalt Prods. Co., 482 U.S. 117, 121, 107 S.Ct. 2275, 2278, 96 L.Ed.2d 97 (1987). While it might have been sensible for Congress to authorize states to disallow EIDs for the month in which a recipient terminated her employment, it did not do so.
Additionally, this is not one of those rare and exceptional circumstances where applying the plain language of the statute would lead to "patently absurd consequences that `Congress could not have possibly intended.'" As the District Court pointed out and the panel acknowledges, section 602(a)(8)(B)(i)(I) is addressed to two distinct groups: the AFDC applicant who purposely reduces her earned income in order to qualify for the EIDs and the current AFDC recipient who terminates her employment without cause. While applying the plain language of the statute to AFDC recipients might lead to a strange result (because it is unlikely a recipient who quit her job in Month A will have income in Month B to which the EIDs can be applied), the District Court reasoned that
Moreover, Smith offered a very plausible reason why Congress meant what it said in section 602(a)(8)(B)(i)(I):
Smith contends that the EID penalty provision was directed toward closing this "loophole."
This contention is supported by the Legislative History which provides that
S.Rep. No. 744, 90th Cong., 1st Sess., reprinted in 1967 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 2834 at 2996 (emphasis added). This Court has also stated that, with respect to section 602(a)(8)(B)(i), "[a]lthough the language is not the easiest to understand, when `translated,' it simply means that you cannot quit a job or refuse a job to become eligible for benefits." Boettger, 923 F.2d at 1187 (emphasis added). Thus, there is support for the position that Congress intended to prevent those who deliberately reduce their income, in order to qualify for AFDC, from using the EIDs (which ordinarily would be available under the "grandfather clause") to stay on AFDC. The District Court's conclusion that the EID disqualification applies to an individual's earnings in the month following the month in which earnings were reduced (or terminated) is consistent with this Congressional purpose.
The MDSS has proffered several alternative interpretations of the statute which it claims are consistent with Congressional intent. These interpretations, however, also all seem to contravene the plain language of the statute.
First, the MDSS contends that the District Court erred in finding that the relevant statutory and regulatory language requires states to consider only employment terminations that occur within a 30-day period that begins and ends prior to the job-quit (or penalty/budget) month. The MDSS attempts instead, to expand the period represented by "such period (of not less than 30 days)" to reach into the job-quit month. Specifically, the MDSS claims that the statute can be read to mean that in order for a state agency to disallow EIDs for the month in which an individual quits her job, the employment termination must have occurred within a period that includes the job-quit month and extends 30 days before this month. However, as noted above, the statute in question expressly provides that, with respect to any month, a participating state shall not disregard an individual's earned income if that individual terminated her employment or reduced her income without good cause within such period (of not less than 30 days) preceding such month. § 602(a)(8)(B)(i)(I). As the District Court explained:
The MDSS further contends that the term "month" could refer to the month in which the state pays the AFDC grant to the recipient (what the MDSS refers to as the "payment month"). As applied to this case, the statute would instruct that
Because Smith quit her job in January, this interpretation might seem to support the MDSS' action of disallowing the EIDs. However, the MDSS' interpretation is problematic. First, MDSS' interpretation will produce results which vary from state to state depending on the state's choice of budgeting cycle, a situation Congress could not have intended.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(13), a state may calculate AFDC in one of three ways. The three types of AFDC budgeting cycles are: (1) Prospective Budgeting—Month C's [e.g., March] earned income is predicted to calculate Month C's AFDC grant; (2) One Month Retrospective Budgeting—Month B's [e.g., February] earned income is used to calculate Month C's [March] AFDC grant; and (3) Two Month Retrospective Budgeting —Month A's [January] earned income is reported in Month B [February] and is used to calculate Month C's [March] AFDC grant.
Michigan uses Two Month Retrospective Budgeting.
Even assuming, arguendo, that this letter constitutes an agency interpretation, "[t]he traditional deference courts pay to agency interpretation is not to be applied to alter the clearly expressed intent of Congress." K Mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., 486 U.S. 281, 291, 108 S.Ct. 1811, 1817, 100 L.Ed.2d 313 (1988) (quoting Board of Governors, FRS v. Dimension Financial Corp., 474 U.S. 361, 368, 106 S.Ct. 681, 686, 88 L.Ed.2d 691 (1986)). Furthermore,
Federal Election Comm'n. v. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Comm., 454 U.S. 27, 31-32, 102 S.Ct. 38, 41-42, 70 L.Ed.2d 23 (1981) (citations omitted). It seems that the agency's position (as set forth in a letter and not by adjudication or rulemaking) is inconsistent with the statutory mandate (and its implementing regulations) that the EID penalty only applies to income earned in the month following the job-quit month.
The MDSS' contention that the 1982 regulations supplant § 233.20 because that section has remained virtually unchanged since 1969 is without merit. To this day, § 233.20(a)(11)(iii)(A), imposing a 30 day limit, has not been amended by HHS.