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Lower Welfare for Newcomers Begins Tuesday

Aid: Governor says law will discourage the poor from moving here for higher benefits. Advocates reply that there is little evidence to support contention.

March 26, 1997|VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — After five years of being blocked by the courts, the Wilson administration is finally prepared to enforce a welfare policy that will pay most new arrivals to California lower benefits--sometimes drastically so--than those paid to established residents.

Under the new policy, California will limit new residents who apply for welfare to the benefit levels paid by the states where they formerly lived.

Wilson officials said the new structure will discourage poor families from moving to California to collect higher welfare benefits, but advocates for the poor pointed out that researchers have found little evidence that families move for that reason.

When the new rates go in effect Tuesday, California will become the fourth state to treat residents who have lived here less than a year differently than those who have lived here longer.

It will mean that a mother and two children who move to Los Angeles from Mississippi will receive cash assistance of $120 a month, compared with the $565 paid to California residents living in urban areas.

Only recent arrivals who come from states that pay higher benefits will get the California rate.

The new rates, when fully implemented, are expected to affect about 9,100 families and save the state an estimated $13.5 million a year.

The change has long been a goal of Gov. Pete Wilson, who contends that California is in danger of becoming a welfare magnet because the cash assistance it pays under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program is much higher than most other states.

For a family of three living in a high-cost urban area, like Los Angeles, the maximum monthly benefit is $565, while the same family living in a lower-cost rural area is paid $538. The urban rate is the sixth-highest in the nation and the rural rate the ninth-highest.

"It's a fundamental matter of fairness," said Wilson's spokesman Sean Walsh. "We should take care of the needs of longtime residents before we take care of those recent arrivals who may indeed have attempted to increase their grant by moving to the state."

But the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law, a Washington-based group that studies issues affecting the poor, noted in a February report that census data showed no evidence that states with higher benefits attracted a disproportionate number of poor families.

Poor families, in fact, tend to move less than more affluent families, the report said, and when they do move their migration patterns follow that of the general population. They are as likely to move to states that pay lower benefits as they are to states that pay higher benefits, the report said.

Walsh said that regardless of the findings by researchers, the governor still believes that the new rates are "good policy."

"If it's 9,100 families or 91 families, the principle is still good," Walsh said. "Working men and women who are struggling with families do not automatically get raises when they move to another state . . . conversely, welfare recipients shouldn't get them either."

Although the Legislature approved the new pay schedules in 1992, the federal courts in a series of rulings prevented California from implementing them. Then in August, the president signed a welfare reform act that gave states broad authority to design their own rate structure. The new law superseded the court rulings.

Even so, advocates for the poor have asked a Sacramento federal judge to reopen one of the earlier cases to consider constitutional issues they believed have been raised by Wilson's decision to put the rates into effect. The judge has not decided whether to grant the hearing.

"We believe once you are in California, you are a California resident and the U. S. Constitution doesn't allow you to be treated differently from anyone else," said Sarah Kurtz, staff attorney for the East Palo Alto Community Law project. "The Constitution protects your right to migrate."

The new rates are going into effect as counties throughout the state are trying to grapple with the many complexities of the new federal welfare law and its far-reaching remodeling of the nation's welfare system.

Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Assn. of California, said that for many local governments the new rates provide an additional task at a time when they are overburdened.

"Counties are trying to get ready for welfare reform, trying to find workfare opportunities for people, trying to get food stamps for single adults, trying to help immigrants with citizenship," Mecca said. "It's not like this is the only thing on our plate. Of all the things that we are doing at this moment in the grand scheme of self-sufficiency, one wonders whether [these] new rules are the most productive use of our time."

As each change in the welfare law is put in place, he said, counties have to retrain thousands of workers so they can comply with the additional rules and regulations.

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