Judge rules states can't cut welfare for new residents Disparate treatment in Pa. is violation of Constitution, he says


WASHINGTON -- A federal judge has ruled that states may not discriminate against new residents by paying them lower welfare benefits than longtime residents. His decision blocks Pennsylvania's use of a tool given to states by the 1996 welfare law.

The decision has broad implications for other states that have adopted similar restrictions.

Judge Clarence Newcomer of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia said such disparate treatment violated the Constitution because it was not rationally related to any legitimate government purpose. Specifically, Newcomer said, the provision denies "equal protection of the laws" to indigent families moving from one state to another.

At least 13 states have adopted such restrictions, according to the National Governors' Association, and other states are considering them. Critics of the new welfare law have begun to challenge this and other provisions, and Newcomer's decision will give them ammunition.

Although his decision bans the practice only in Pennsylvania, the ruling is sure to be cited as poor people challenge similar residency requirements in other states.

Pennsylvania was taking advantage of a provision of the 1996 law that allows states to calculate welfare benefits for new residents by using the rules of the states where they previously lived.

The case involved people like Edwin and Maria Maldonado and their six children, who moved to Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico in May. Under an option allowed by the federal welfare law, Pennsylvania provided the Maldonados with $304 a month in cash assistance, representing the maximum they could have received in Puerto Rico, rather than the $836 paid to families of the same size that have lived in Pennsylvania more than a year.

The "desire to save money is not a legitimate basis for discriminating against newly arrived residents in the distribution of welfare benefits," Newcomer said in his ruling, issued last week.

Pennsylvania said it wanted to avoid becoming a magnet for poor people. "We must ensure that Pennsylvania resources are available to Pennsylvania residents," it told the federal government. Moreover, the state said it wanted to discourage people from "shopping around for the best benefit package of the year."

Newcomer said such purposes were "unconstitutionally impermissible."

Even if the Maldonados received the full benefits allowed to longtime residents of Pennsylvania, their income would be only 37 percent of the official poverty level ($26,930 for a family of eight), Newcomer noted.

The Maldonados returned to Puerto Rico last month, saying they could not afford basic necessities such as shelter and clothing in Philadelphia.

"I could not wait around until my wife and kids were thrown out on the street with me for not paying rent," Maldonado said.

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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