Supreme Court Should Throw Out California's Cruel 'Welfare Magnet' Law

As long as there have been poor people in the United States - and that is always - state and local governments have adopted isolationist policies to keep them out. But over the last 50 years the United States Supreme Court has regularly blocked these efforts by declaring such laws unconstitutional.

January 7, 1999

San Jose Mercury’s web site “Mercury Center”
January 7, 1999

Supreme Court Should Throw Out California’s Cruel ‘Welfare Magnet’ Law
By Elizabeth Daniel

As long as there have been poor people in the United States - and that is always - state and local governments have adopted isolationist policies to keep them out. But over the last 50 years the United States Supreme Court has regularly blocked these efforts by declaring such laws unconstitutional.

On January 13, when Anderson v. Roe is argued, the Supreme Court will revisit whether states may renew this unfortunate tradition of singling out poor newcomers for harsh treatment. The Court should reject these efforts as not only cruel but unconstitutional and should continue its tradition of using its place in our democracy to protect this uniquely disenfranchised group of citizens.

Anderson v. Roe brings before the Court a California law that denies new residents full welfare benefits for one year, regardless of their need or reason for moving to the state. Take the case of Brenda Roe, one of the welfare recipients who sued California. She and her husband moved from Oklahoma to Long Beach, Calif., so that he could find a better job. They had never been on public assistance before, but when she became bedridden with a difficult pregnancy, her husband had to leave his job to care for her. She sought benefits for the first time in her life and was told that she could not collect the California grant of $565 a month for a family of three, but would be limited to $307 the level she would have received in Oklahoma.

That $307, of course, would not even cover the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Long Beach, which runs at least $450. Given the high rents in most of California and the scarcity of public housing, these residency requirements make it almost impossible for needy new residents from states with lower benefits to survive.

California enacted this law know as a “durational residency requirement” in 1992, but has barely been able to enforce it because the courts have consistently held it unconstitutional.

Nonetheless, a dozen other states have since enacted similar laws as part of the so-called welfare reform movement. And in 1996, Congress ratified these durational residency requirements as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.

These harsh rules and the spirit behind them are not new. In the 1930s, for instance, California threatened jail time for those who helped poor people move to the state.

In the 1960s, the states threatened poor newcomers with starvation by denying them subsistence benefits for their first year or so of residency. Now, California and at least a dozen other states are threatening poor newcomers with benefits so low that even the state that has imposed them admitted during litigation that they will cause significant hardship.

The factual assumptions at the bottom of these laws have always been plain wrong and they are still wrong. California politicians stirred up the public with promises that the law would end the state’s status as a welfare magnet, while ignoring the strong evidence that poor people do not move in search of better welfare benefits.

Indeed, almost all the evidence shows that they move for the same reasons other people do - for better jobs, to be closer to family, to escape an abusive spouse. Unfortunately, the image of the crafty welfare mother moving from state to state in search of higher benefits and easy living was too easy a target for these politicians to let facts get in the way.

Not only are durational residency requirements based on erroneous and punitive factual assumptions, they are unconstitutional they violate the right to travel articulated by the Court thirty years ago when it reviewed a state law that barred new residents from receiving any welfare benefits their first year in the state.

In that case, Shapiro v. Thompson, the Court stated unequivocally that a state could not punish one group of citizens poor citizens simply for moving from one state to another. Regardless of when the citizens arrived, the Court found that all bona fide residents must treated as full-fledged citizens. Using yardsticks of wealth and residency, the durational residency requirements of Shapiro and Anderson create a second class of citizens a concept that is an affront to our federalism and democracy.

Finally and what makes these laws particularly appropriate for judicial intervention it is inconsistent with our democracy to single out for punishment a group of people who could not participate in the political process that enacted these laws. That is, newcomers, by definition, were not in the state when the durational residency requirement was passed, and therefore could not support or oppose their passage.

Perhaps the most critical role courts play in our tripartite democracy is protecting our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, those who are excluded from the democratic process, from the otherwise uncheckable whims of the executive and legislative branches.

It is not only ironic but shameful that, at a time when international trade and telecommunications are lowering barriers to economic opportunity for Americans who already have money, our federal and state governments would use a reform called a work opportunity act to punish poor people for moving to a new state in search of jobs and opportunities.

Anderson v. Roe gives the Supreme Court a chance to affirm that our Constitution will not permit such punishments, but will continue to protect the right of all Americans, including the poor, to seek opportunity.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Daniel is a Staff Attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. She co-authored an amicus brief on Anderson v. Roe on behalf of the Center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. the Center for Constitutional Rights, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and People for the American Way.