No Welcome for Welfare Wanderers

A burst of new state laws are passed to lower welfare benefits paid to new residents

Monique Ruffin came to Seattle in search of a better life. Recently divorced, the mother of four moved from Louisiana to look for a job here and to be near her family.

But dwindling resources and no job meant welfare. Much to her surprise, though, she did not receive the Washington rate of $740 a month for a family of five, instead got $277 a month - the Louisiana rate.

Ms. Ruffin, who is suing the state over the discrepancy, now finds herself at the center of a national debate on welfare reform. Since sweeping changes were passed in August 1996, lawmakers have worried that welfare recipients from low-paying states would flood into states with better benefits, decreasing the quality of life and overtaxing the system.

To date, 15 states have passed laws paying lower benefits to new residents - to push people to find work and prevent their states from becoming "welfare magnets."

The only problem is, there is little evidence to support the notion that masses of poor people are moving from state to state, seeking benefits. Moreover, many critics are standing up for the rights of those who do move. Thus, the future of these laws remains uncertain, and other states are looking to Washington to see which direction the court will go next.

So far, three federal court cases, including Ruffin's, are contesting the new laws. Yet some experts say that the concerns about becoming a welfare magnet are so strong that many states may still push to pass two-tiered laws.

"If the perception is out there - regardless of what the research shows - there's pressure to limit benefits," says Mark Rank, associate professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis. "There may be a race to the bottom," to pay the lowest benefits.

Public opinion largely favors work-based welfare reforms, experts say. In fact, Washington's rates are some of the nation's most generous, and even bordering states pay far less. Oregon and Idaho pay $460 and $317, respectively, for a family of three - compared with Washington's $546 per month.

The author of the Washington law that took effect last fall, Rep. Suzette Cooke (R), says that it is a preventive measure. "We're saying you better have a pretty good idea of the job market before you move your family up here."

The law's tough road ahead

But Washington may have a tough road ahead if it wants to keep its law. Similar laws in Pennsylvania and California have already been struck down in court, although both states are appealing the decisions.

Critics of the new laws say they violate constitutional rights to free travel and equal protection under the law, and they are punitive to domestic violence victims traveling across state lines to flee their abusers.

And many observers say the laws ignore the real reasons the poor relocate: for better jobs, education, and family ties. "Local friendship and kin networks are far more valuable than an extra $50 a week," says Charles Noble, a political scientist at California State University, Long Beach. "Day care, employment, support services are all things that don't show up when you compare benefits."

Does welfare migration happen?

Scholars also add that statistics show only negligible amounts of welfare migration - if any. "I've been looking for [welfare migrants] for years," says Leon Ginsberg, professor of social work at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Indeed, across the Cascade Mountains in the small town of Moscow, Idaho, welfare caseloads have dropped from 87 down to just a handful in the past year, due to tougher laws. Yet the city found only one woman who moved to a nearby town in Washington, and she returned shortly afterward to be with family. "Licensing your car [in Washington] is triple what it is in Idaho," says Jeri Pool, a supervisor in the Moscow's welfare office

Since Washington began tracking the numbers in November, about 100 families have moved here from lower-paying states.

Lawmakers, however, are adamant they haven't created legislation out of anecdotal evidence."When I have direct experience talking to these people [who move for higher benefits], that's not anecdote," says Ms. Cooke.

What is certain, is that the debate won't end anytime soon. A ruling on California's appeal is expected soon from the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Massachusetts, for one, is watching.

"It's something that's been talked about behind closed walls [here]," says Dick Powers, a spokesman for the state's Department of Transitional Assistance. But he notes that the state hasn't crafted a new law yet because a new policy paying different benefits "would be contested and contested successfully."

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