High Court to Review Rights of Welfare Recipients

January 11, 1999 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

ACLU News Wire: 1-11-99 — High Court to Review Rights of Welfare Recipients

ine.gif” ALIGN=”BOTTOM”>

LOS ANGELES — When Bridgitte McKelphin lost her job making car parts in Mississippi and moved to California with her four children, she applied for public aid, Associated Press reports. She needed help to cover living expenses, including a small apartment she wanted to rent for $400 a month.

But under a state law being reviewed by the Supreme Court, Ms. McKelphin would be eligible to receive only $144 — the maximum paid by Mississippi — rather than the $829 paid in California, where the cost of living is higher.

The high court is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday in the case, which AP reports is being closely monitored by other states who wish to reduce benefits for newcomers they see as potential freeloaders.

If the court upholds the 1992 law, Ms. McKelphin fears her family will be forced into a shelter or onto the streets.

The American Civil Liberties Union contends it is unconstitutional for the state to discriminate against new residents just to discourage them from migrating to California.

“In this country, citizens choose states, states don’t choose citizens,” ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum, who will argue the case before the high court, told the AP. “It’s denying some citizens the same rights as other citizens based on the length of time they have lived here. It’s reducing new residents to second-class citizenship.”

The California Legislature passed the act at the urging of then-governor Pete Wilson, limiting aid to residents of less than a year to levels paid by the states they came from. After one year of residency, their payments would increase to the California level.

The ACLU, the Women’s Law Project and other opponents say California has the fifth-highest housing costs in the nation and so is no lure to welfare recipients.

“There is no evidence whatsoever that a welfare magnet exists,” Rosenbaum said. “This is not a get-rich-quick scheme.”

The Women’s Law Project and 65 other organizations serving domestic violence victims also contend the rule penalizes women who flee across state lines — sometimes with little more than the clothes on their backs — to avoid stalking and violence. The women need public aid to start new lives, Ms. Frietsche said.

“It’s just devastating to low-income families, which are largely headed by females,” said Sue Frietsche, a lawyer for the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, which filed a brief opposing the law. “It’s a cruel and wrong policy.”

In California, officials estimated the law would reduce benefits for about 9,100 families, or 1 percent of the total, saving $13.5 million a year, reported the AP.

For Ms. McKelphin, 23, and her children, who range in age from 5 years to nine months, not receiving full welfare benefits could force them to move to a public shelter or even the streets.

While she awaits word from the welfare agency, Ms. McKelphin told the AP that she relies on the generosity of her children’s grandmother.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “The only thing I’m trying to do is get on my feet. As long as I get on my feet, I can take it from there.”

Source: The Associated Press, January 11, 1999

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.