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Welfare Trims Proposed to Cut Migration to Wisconsin

February 05, 1989|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

MADISON, Wis. — The air is cleaner here than in much of the Midwest, the schools better, crime less, jobs more plentiful, housing cheaper and the people, in one critical aspect at least, a little more generous. Perhaps, some think, too generous.

Despite Wisconsin's reputation as a haven for progressive politics, leaders in both major parties say that public aid benefits well above the national average have turned the state into a welfare magnet that draws poor immigrants from other states and strains public services.

Now, armed with new research that may bolster that claim, both Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and a top Democratic lawmaker are pushing controversial plans to trim welfare benefits for newcomers in the hopes that more of them will stay away.

"We simply want to take away the incentive to come to Wisconsin," said Sen. Joseph Strohl, the Democratic majority leader of the state Senate.

Critics say the problem is overblown and the proposed solution probably unconstitutional. "It's racist," said State Rep. Marcia Coggs, a Milwaukee Democrat. "Poor people are not moving to Wisconsin to get on welfare. They move for . . . jobs, security, good schools for their kids. We have a low crime rate and many people are moving from Chicago because of the high crime rate there."

Nevertheless, high-level bipartisan backing has greatly increased odds that the Legislature will pass some form of innovative, multi-tiered welfare scheme that pays new arrivals less than other recipients.

The controversy has rekindled a simmering debate over whether the poor are lured by the quality of life or by fatter welfare checks.

And both sides agree that what happens here could have implications nationwide. Should a Wisconsin plan pass legal muster in the courts, it could become a model for other states, including California, which also offer high public aid benefit levels.

The welfare magnet dispute is neither new nor unique to Wisconsin. At one time, several states had rules that made new residents ineligible for welfare for long periods. But, in 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such residency requirements on the grounds that they were based on class distinctions and infringed on the right to travel.

No One Denied Aid

Strohl argues that his plan is different because no one in need would be denied aid. Instead, they would simply receive benefits at the level paid by their old state for the first six months after they relocated to Wisconsin. Camille Steffen, Thompson's executive assistant, said the governor would soon propose an experimental plan along similar, though possibly more modest, lines.

The nation's primary welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, is funded jointly by federal and state treasuries, but the ultimate pay-out levels are determined by individual states. Consequently, grants vary widely, from a maximum of $118-a-month for a family of three in Alabama to $740-a-month for a comparable family in Alaska, according to federal statistics compiled last year.

Nationwide, maximum monthly benefits averaged $359. But in California, the No. 2 state on the list and one with a high cost of living, AFDC grants hit $633-a-month.

Cuts Benefits 6%

As part of a wide-ranging welfare revamp, Wisconsin actually cut AFDC benefits by 6% two years ago and shifted the money to broader based school and job-training programs for the poor. Even so, the maximum monthly grant for a three-person family stood at $517 in 1988, the seventh- highest level in the nation. In neighboring Illinois, where the cost of living is considerably higher, a like-sized family could qualify for only $342-a-month.

And therein lies the crux of the debate. By far the largest number of new welfare recipients here come from Illinois, which sends three recipients to Wisconsin for every one that moves from Wisconsin to Illinois, according to state figures.

But is it the welfare money that is drawing people north?

State Commissions Study

A study commissioned by the state three years ago concluded that, by and large, the answer was "no." Paul Voss, a University of Wisconsin demographer who authored the report, said interviews with thousands of newly arrived welfare recipients found that the overwhelming reasons most gave for moving were to be near family and friends. "Lowering welfare benefits is not going to make much of a dent in the flood of migrants," Voss predicted.

However, a recent study by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a Milwaukee-based conservative think tank, hints that the answer may be "yes." According to the report, which analyzed three years of residency data for welfare applicants, newcomers accounted for 29% of all newly opened AFDC cases statewide and 43% of all the new cases in the Milwaukee area and other counties close to Illinois.

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