Testing limits on heading west for welfare

High court considers California's right to restrict welfarechecks to new residents.

If you were on welfare in Texas receiving $188 a month and found that California welfare pays $565 a month, would you move to California? That is the kind of hypothetical question that led to passage of a controversial California law to restrict the amount of welfare paid to new residents. California officials worried welfare recipients across the US might wake up one morning, dump all their belongings into the car, and head west. They'd be a 1990s version of John Steinbeck's Joad family in "The Grapes of Wrath," fleeing the economic drought of scrawny welfare checks in states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Mississippi in favor of California's plump, juicy benefits. Their concern was that such a mass migration could overload and bankrupt California's welfare program. That never happened. But California isn't taking any chances. Yesterday, lawyers for the state appeared in the Supreme Court on a mission to convince at least five of the nine justices that state law complies with the US Constitution. Fundamental right At issue is whether the California law violates the fundamental right of Americans to live and travel in the 50 states without regard to their economic status. In the past, the Supreme Court has been extremely protective of the right to travel. In 1969, the high court struck down a similar law that barred for one year any welfare payments to new state residents. Current California law provides that for the first year of residency, a new Californian shall receive no more than the amount of welfare he or she received in a prior state. After a year, Californians are entitled to full benefits. Federal judges in California struck down the new welfare limitation law, citing the 1969 precedent. But some legal analysts say the justices may now be considering carving out an exception that would help states experiment with welfare reform. During oral arguments yesterday, however, at least five justices seemed highly skeptical of the California law. Theodore Garelis, a deputy attorney general representing California in the case, told the justices that the law only remotely affected the right to travel. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg countered that existing legal precedence clearly establish that newcomers in a state must be treated like all other residents. "That is the genius of the United States," she said, "that people can pick their states and states can't pick their people." Welfare experiments When Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, they junked a uniform nationwide payment program and replaced it with a welfare payment mechanism that varied from one state to the next. Reform opened the way for experimentation with workfare and other incentive-oriented plans to break the cycle of dependency of many low-income Americans. But it also created a patchwork of welfare systems across the nation. And for the first time, it raised the idea in the minds of some officials that welfare recipients might start shopping among the states for the most lucrative welfare deal. California isn't the only state to attempt to impose welfare restrictions on new residents. More than a dozen other states have enacted similar laws. Congress authorized such laws when it passed welfare reform in 1996. Critics say these laws are aimed at deterring the migration of poor people. And should they move anyway, they will be treated as second-class citizens. For example, a family of four in California gets $673 a month in welfare payments, while that same family having just moved to California from Mississippi would get only $144 a month. Experts say it's inconceivable how a family could survive in California, with one of the highest costs of living, on $144 a month. State officials concede that new resident welfare recipients may have to live on a strict budget for their first year in California, but with a little belt-tightening they should still have enough money for the basic necessities. That assumes no unexpected emergencies arise, says Laurel Weir at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. If something goes wrong after moving to a new state, the middle and upper classes have a financial cushion to turn to, she says. "For low income families welfare is their only safety net and if you start clipping away at that net, there is nothing to catch them." Particularly hard hit by the California law, experts say, would be women and their children escaping an abusive relationship. "The vast majority of domestic abuse survivors have to flee across state lines" to escape violent men who forbid them from leaving, says Susan Frietsche of the Women's Law Center in Philadelphia. She says the California law is self-defeating. "If the goal of welfare reform is to get people self-sufficient and self-supporting, it is utterly irrational to reduce new residents' benefits to an amount that they can't survive on. In the case of domestic violence victims, it will not help them get a job. It will not help them get child care. It will not help them get an education. The only thing it is going to do is drive them back to their abuser."

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