Justices reverse welfare limit

Calif. statute allowed newcomers to be paid benefits at lower level

Md. among states affected

May 18, 1999|By LYLE DENNISTON | LYLE DENNISTON,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Reinforcing the right of all Americans to move to a new state, the Supreme Court struck down yesterday state laws that penalize people on welfare who exercise that right.

It is unconstitutional, the court ruled by a 7-2 vote, for states to limit newcomers to the lower welfare benefits they had been collecting where they used to live.

"Citizens of the U.S., whether rich or poor, have the right to choose to be citizens of the state wherein they reside," a right that includes equal treatment in many state programs, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.

The decision will raise welfare budgets in the 15 states, including Maryland, that have paid lower welfare benefits to new residents than to longtime residents.

In California, the state directly involved in the case, the court's ruling will add nearly $11 million to welfare spending annually.

In Maryland, the increase might be no more than $200,000 to $300,000 a year, for at most 200 people, officials said.

Illustrating the practical effect of the ruling, the court noted that a family of three that moves to California from Louisiana will immediately be eligible for the $641 a month that California usually provides for such a family, not the $190 per month in welfare received in Louisiana.

Under the California law's two-tiered approach, the former Louisiana family would have had to wait a year to receive the higher benefit available to other California welfare recipients.

A Maryland law that appears doomed by the ruling also caps welfare benefits for the first 12 months at the amount received in the former state -- except for victims of domestic violence.

Though the court's decision directly nullifies only the California law, the effect will be to void similar laws elsewhere. The ruling also means that a 1996 federal law allowing states to adopt the California approach no longer applies.

Maryland adopted the two-tiered approach after the passage of the federal law, said Richard Larson, a policy director in the state Department of Human Resources' Family Investment Administration. That approach has not been challenged in Maryland, he said.

The high court's ruling gave broad new meaning to a little-used part of the Constitution -- a 14th Amendment guarantee that people who move or travel from state to state enjoy all the "privileges and immunities" of local citizens. The court had relied on that guarantee only one other time in this century to strike down a state law.

The court made clear that states cannot treat new residents worse, in terms of access to public benefits, than they do longer-term residents.

Unequal treatment, Stevens wrote, cannot be justified by arguing that it would save money or by claiming the power to discourage the poor from coming to the state to receive higher benefits.

The decision stressed, however, that states retain some power to treat permanent residents differently from individuals who pass through temporarily. For example, the justices said, states can give residents a break on college tuition, compared with students from out of state.

The California law struck down yesterday has been under challenge since its adoption in 1992. Most recently, it was challenged by a woman who moved from Oklahoma and drew welfare benefits of $307 a month, the Oklahoma rate, instead of California's level of $565, and by another who moved from the District of Columbia who qualified for $330 a month instead of $456.

California required these women and other newcomers to be residents for one year to obtain full benefits. For the first year, the level was set at the lower amount paid in the resident's old state.

A prior dispute over the law's constitutionality went to the Supreme Court in 1995, but did not produce a final ruling.

In 1996, Congress passed a federal law allowing states to use a minimum residency requirement in establishing welfare laws. A new court challenge to the California law followed, leading to yesterday's ruling.

Stevens' opinion was supported by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and David H. Souter. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

Sun staff writer Marcia Myers contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 05/18/99

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