Cityview: Hello, You Must Be Going

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Welcome to New York: The Cadillac of Welfare States.

So read a campaign brochure for an upstate legislator’s successful reelection bid a few years ago. As this successful campaign gambit shows, the “welfare magnet” notion–the belief that people will move from state to state to get more generous welfare benefits–remains widespread, enduring and politically useful.

It is also false.

Though rooted in myth and stereotype, the belief continues to guide welfare policy. In three recent sessions, the New York state legislature, without significant opposition from either major party, adopted laws to restrict recent arrivals to reduced benefits or no benefits at all for some period of time. Clearly, lawmakers could benefit from reading some unbiased studies on the topic.

First, it is a fact that in our highly mobile society, poor people tend to move less frequently than other Americans. This is based on a 1995 study conducted by the National Research Council, a nonpartisan group that also sponsors research for the likes of the National Academy of Sciences.

The poor are also less likely to be able to afford the expenses of moving, less likely to have the personal and professional connections that provide information about new locales, and less able to afford a transition period in a new home without income. Moreover, low-income people’s existing support network of friends and relatives are likely to be local.

And when the poor do move, study after study–gathered in a recently completed literature review by the national Welfare Law Center–reveals that benefit levels have had virtually no impact on their decision to do so.

This has been the case for some time. From the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, the poor and affluent alike have been moving west and south, according to research by the Russell Sage Foundation. That is despite the fact that during this time all 17 southern states dispensed benefits well below the national average.

In an even more graphic illustration, a 1994 these rights, University of Wisconsin study found that between 1982 and 1988, more poor women of child-bearing age moved from California to Texas than moved in the opposite direction, even though Texas moms receive one-third less than their California counterparts.

Need more proof? A 1994 University of Michigan study reported that between 1985 and 1990, more poor people moved into eight of the 10 states that had the lowest benefits in the country than moved out of those states. The study also found that more poor people moved out of six of the 10 states with the highest benefits than moved into them.

Frankly, nowhere are benefits so generous as to justify the financial and emotional cost of relocating. The simple truth is that poor people move for the same reasons that other folks move: to seek better employment, to be closer to family and to find a more hospitable climate.

The denial of aid will not deter families from moving to New York–but it may well cause them severe and senseless hardship.

The federal version of welfare reform adopted in August 1996 did not require that states lower benefits to new residents. But the law explicitly invited states to do so by asking them, in the funding requests they submit to Health and Human Services, to indicate whether they plan to restrict benefits for new residents.

New York accepted the invitation. Its Welfare Reform Act of 1997 stipulates that in their first year here, new residents are to receive either the level of benefits they had in their prior state or 50 percent of New York’s benefits, whichever is higher. And non-citizen legal immigrants, whether they arrive from another country or another state, won’t see any welfare benefits at all during their first year in New York.

This discrimination against new state residents, in addition to being bad policy, also stands on shaky legal ground. The legislature has adopted welfare restrictions on new residents twice before, and each time state courts have found their them unconstitutional. The critical precedent applied in both of those cases was the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision Shapiro v. Thompson, which nullified similar welfare residency requirements adopted in two other states and the District of Columbia.

In Shapiro, the court ruled that the U.S. Constitution projects the right of people to travel between states and that welfare restrictions against new arrivals infringed on that right.

Since both the federal and New York constitutions protect new restrictions may be similarly stricken down. Here in New York, such legislation may also run afoul of our constitutional mandate to provide care for the needy.

Unfortunately, with an increasingly conservative judiciary, we cannot be confident that the courts will adhere to earlier decisions. But new resident restrictions are likely to face extensive litigation and will hopefully be invalidated before they inflict damage.

Yet nothing will be solved over the long term as long as law makers use myth and stereotype as the basis for policy. They will continue to fight welfare–not poverty.

Don Friedman is a senior policy analyst at the Community Food Resource Center.