WASHINGTON — In a decision with important implications for states' rights, the Supreme Court has ruled that states may not limit the welfare benefits of newly arrived residents.
The 7-to-2 ruling asserted that California's limits on benefits to new residents, designed to discourage people from "welfare shopping" - migrating from state to state to get the best benefits - violated a person's constitutional right to travel.
The ruling also invalidates similar laws in at least 14 other states. It is being hailed by welfare advocates as a victory for the poor, particularly those who relocate to more expensive locales. But conservatives believe it tramples on state jurisdictions and will foster more welfare dependency.
The decision, in a case called Saenz v. Roe, bolsters the constitutional principle that all Americans are entitled to travel among the states free of interference by state or federal regulation. As the court decision puts it: Citizens may choose their states, but states may not choose their citizens.
If the Supreme Court had upheld California's policy, the state would have had the right to give welfare recipients who'd been in California less than a year benefits equal only to those of their previous state.
The decision makes it easier for low-income Americans to move between states with varying costs of living. That will raise concerns among welfare reformers who worry that states with more lucrative welfare benefits - such as California - may become magnets for highly mobile welfare recipients shopping for the most generous welfare package.
If a sudden migration takes place, it could threaten to bankrupt a state's welfare program.
Analysts say the decision might also trigger a move by state governments to cut their welfare benefits to approximate those in other states. Such action would hurt all current welfare recipients by forcing them to make do with less.
So far, this so-called "race to the bottom" in benefits - a feared result of time limits and work requirements that vary state to state - has not materialized.
Few signs of 'migration'
Neither has there been much identifiable "welfare migration." Studies have shown that few families move to other states simply to receive higher welfare benefits. Rather, low-income families tend to move for the same reasons that other families do: for jobs or education, or to be closer to family and other support networks.
Opponents of the 1996 federal welfare-reform law, which explicitly allowed states to limit benefits to newly arrived residents, applauded the ruling and predicted that it would not spur welfare migration.
"I don't think it will change anything, because we've always maintained that people weren't moving for higher benefits," says Eileen Sweeney at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities here. "What's exciting is the court has recognized that all Americans, including poor people, have the right to move from state to state."
Conservative welfare-reform advocates see implications for yesterday's ruling that go beyond welfare benefit levels.
Robert Rector, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank, calls the court's decision "a bizarre and mindless policy" that would call into question every state university system. He notes that California has free tuition for state residents, and he sees no difference between that and the contested welfare policy.
"I don't think [the nine justices] could explain the difference," he says. "Over and over again, the [justices] have imposed blind and mindless decisions that have deepened dependency and harmed welfare recipients."
Mr. Rector does not believe the ruling will create any immediate tendency toward migration. In fact, he says the work requirements of each state will have a more profound effect on any potential migration.
The case at issue in yesterday's ruling involved welfare recipients who had moved from states with lower benefits than those in California, where benefits are among the highest in the nation, at least in dollar amount. For example, a family of four in California gets $673 a month, while a family from Mississippi that had moved to California within the past year would get only $144. When cost of living is factored in, California's benefits rank in the middle compared with those of other states.
On a practical level, the decision will cost California roughly $22 million more in state welfare payments per year.
Other court decisions
In other action yesterday, the court:
*Ruled that police do not need a warrant to seize someone's car from a public place under laws requiring forfeiture of property linked to crime. The 7-to-2 ruling reinstated a Florida man's drug conviction based on the crack cocaine police found in his car after seizing it without a warrant.
*Left intact a million-dollar libel award against the tabloid newspaper Globe for repeating a book's claim that a California man, not Sirhan Sirhan, killed Robert F. Kennedy. The justices let stand a ruling that the news media can be liable for repeating someone else's libelous statement about a private figure.
*Staff writer Alexandra Marks contributed to this report.