U.S. High Court Strikes Down Welfare Benefit Limits FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 18 May 1999 12:42:44 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  Reuters - May 17, 1999


By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decisively Monday that
states may not limit the amount of public assistance given to newly arrived
residents from other parts of the country in an effort to save money on

The high court, by a 7-2 vote, declared unconstitutional laws in California
and a number of other states that limit benefits to new residents for their
first year to the amount they received in the states where they lived

Justice John Paul Stevens said for the court majority that the California
law at issue, adopted as part of an effort to reform the welfare system and
save about $11 million a year, would impair an individual's fundamental
right to travel from state to state.

``The word 'travel' is not found in the text of the Constitution. Yet the
constitutional right to travel from one state to another is firmly embedded
in our jurisprudence,'' Stevens wrote in the sweeping 21-page ruling.

``Citizens of the United States, whether rich or poor, have the right to
choose to be citizens of the state wherein they reside. The states, however,
do not have any right to select their citizens,'' he said.

California, the nation's most populous state, is also one of the most
generous, providing nearly $3 billion a year in welfare payments. Forty-four
states and the District of Columbia all have lower benefit levels than

A family of four in California would ordinarily get about $673 a month,
while a family who had moved from Mississippi within the past year would get
only $144.

Stevens said the law would apply even if the members of a family had lived
their entire lives in California, but left the state at the end of January
and returned in mid-April.

He said the two-tiered benefit policy involved unconstitutional
discrimination against new residents. ``The state's legitimate interest in
saving money provides no justification for its decision to discriminate
among equally eligible citizens,'' he said.

California adopted the controversial law earlier this decade after state
officials complained that it had become a ``welfare magnet'' for new
residents. The law has never taken effect because of court challenges.

The ruling will have broad impact as 14 other states have similar laws.

Stevens also rejected the argument, made by the Clinton administration, that
the U.S. Congress in a 1996 federal welfare law authorized states to set
limits for new residents.

Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California,
who argued the case before the high court, hailed the ruling, saying it
reaffirmed ``the principle that states may not fence out poor migrants.''

Only Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

Rehnquist said he would uphold the law because Congress decided it made good
welfare policy to give states ``the authority and flexibility to ensure''
that their programs were not exploited.

``If states can require individuals to reside in-state for a year before
exercising the right to education benefits, the right to terminate a
marriage or the right to vote in primary elections that all other citizens
enjoy, then states may surely do the same for welfare benefits,'' Rehnquist

He said the one-year limit was an acceptable restriction. The Supreme Court
in a ruling 30 years ago struck down state laws that barred all welfare
benefits to newcomers in their first year of residency.


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