Judge's welfare order has put Massachusetts on the spot. Once again the courts are pressing politicians to correct social ills

NOBODY, especially a lawmaker, likes to be told what to do. The recent welfare-benefits decree by a Massachusetts Superior Court judge is certainly no exception. While the effects of the Jan. 5 order by Judge Charles M. Grabau may be less than first assumed, they still seem likely to result in increased payments for thousands of poor families. The order did not specify how much the welfare level should be increased, but it represents a major victory for human service activists pushing to provide higher living standards for the needy.

Massachusetts has a strong economy and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.

Judge Grabau, in clarifying his order last week, said he wants the administration to admit that current benefit levels are far below actual expenses for a family.

Regardless of whether the administration wins its appeal of the ruling, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and the legislature may have little choice but to come up with at least a modest adjustment in benefits.

It would be unfair to the administration and legislature leaders to suggest that something would not have been done to boost payment levels for those receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The Grabau action, however, just might speed things along.

From a purely constitutional standpoint it would appear that Judge Grabau, as concerned as he surely was over the adequacy of AFDC benefits, has no authority to provide additional money.

All the courts can do is find that deplorable conditions exist and direct those responsible to make improvements.

The Grabau order was particularly disturbing to Governor Dukakis, coming as it did almost on the eve of his inauguration to a third term and at a time when he is touting the accomplishments of his administration in improving the plight of people in the state.

Higher welfare benefits could also increase eligibility levels for welfare to include perhaps thousands of new people, among them some who would find it more attractive to collect AFDC checks than continue in low-paying jobs.

The Grabau order might also weaken the state's ET (employment and training) program under which some 30,000 people, mostly AFDC mothers, have been helped off welfare into self-supporting jobs over the past three years. That program and its success in reducing state welfare rolls have been heralded by the governor as something needed nationally, with potential for saving millions of tax dollars while providing many with a better life style and greater sense of self-respect.

The Grabau decree came just days after federal District Court Judge Joseph Tauro ended his 14-year involvement in ensuring substantially improved living conditions for the residents at the state's five institutions for the mentally retarded. Unlike the current welfare-benefits case, the state did not appeal that court finding. Instead, officials agreed to make improvements.

Two years ago, in a case concerning pollution of Boston Harbor, then state Superior Court Judge Paul Garrity ordered the commonwealth to end the discharge of sewage into the harbor. He refused to step aside until lawmakers created an agency to plan and build new treatment facilities.

State or federal judges in recent years have also forced Boston officials to approve and implement plans for replacing the old Charles Street Jail, to improve the public housing program, and to affect substantial changes in the schools.

In each instance the officials were forced to carry out sometimes court-directed programs and come up with funds to get the job done.

In the Boston school case, for example, federal Judge W.Arthur Garrity Jr. often had more to say about how schools were run than elected officials, for close to a decade. There is little doubt that the Garrity orders, aimed at racially balancing the city's classrooms, had an effect substantially beyond what was originally intended.

The original Grabau decree could have similar consequences for the commonwealth and its economy over the coming years, with perhaps more people on welfare and higher taxes to pay the increased benefits.

Certainly the state has a responsibility to see that no citizen is without housing, essential clothing, and enough food. But whatever aid is provided should not be a disincentive to anyone to try to make it on his own.

The need to ensure proper housing for poor families might be better served through a direct rental-subsidy grant for those unable to find a decent shelter. It would surely be cheaper in the long run were homeless families located permanently in public or private housing rather than put up indefinitely in hotels.

The real answer is to make it more attractive for those who could support themselves and their families to move voluntarily in that direction, leaving welfare dollars for those who need it most.

As well motivated as it was, the Grabau order would hardly accomplish that.

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