Washington violates the constitutional rights of newcomers by restricting their welfare benefits, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.
The class action, filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on behalf of the newly transplanted poor, is the first major challenge to recent reforms of state welfare programs.
It’s on good legal footing, experts say.
The suit duplicates a Pennsylvania action, in which a judge found that pulling up the welcome mat to the poor is unconstitutional.
The law was passed in April by legislators fearful that Washington’s relatively generous welfare benefits- 11th-highest in the country - will make it a magnet for the poor.
Idaho’s benefits for a family of three are half the Washington level of $546 a month. Mississippi offers $181, the lowest in the nation.
But such a law is illegal, and research shows welfare families are not so opportunistic, said Jerry Sheehan of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It’s a political argument that has no basis in reality,” said Sheehan.
His group, along with Columbia Legal Services and the Northwest Women’s Law Center, filed the suit on behalf of two single welfare mothers and the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition.
The lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing Jan. 23, asks for an immediate injunction to save the two families from “homelessness, hunger, illness and exposure to the elements.”
The law requires people to live in Washington a year before qualifying for full cash benefits, up to $840 for a large family.
Without proof of residency, welfare recipients get the amount offered by their previous state, if it’s lower.
It’s a $365 difference for one of the women, a mother of four escaping an abusive husband, identified as Jane Doe in the suit.
The lifelong Washington resident fled to Missouri when her husband threatened to kill her; when she returned two months later, she was given $375, the amount allotted in Missouri.
Living on the lower amount in Seattle, without subsidized housing, is impossible, she says.
“I am bringing this lawsuit because I think that other women in abusive situations will be less likely and able to leave their husbands if they cannot get full welfare benefits,” the woman said in a declaration.
Another plaintiff, Monique Ruffin, moved from Louisiana to Washington after her mother died and her marriage dissolved.
Ruffin and her five children are eligible for the $277 Louisiana grant, $463 less than Washington’s benefits. The family is living in a Seattle homeless shelter.
Legislators continue to endorse the requirement and the demand that welfare recipients find work.
“No one can tell me that a difference of $300 a month is not going to attract people to, say, the Clarkston area,” said Sen. Alex Deccio, R-Yakima, one of the law’s architects.
“If we’re really serious about getting people off public assistance, we’re not going to do it making one state look more attractive than another.”
There’s been no influx of out-ofstaters before or after the law took effect Nov. 1, said Liz Dunbar, assistant secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services. The state agency is a defendant in the suit.
A handful of Idaho families have moved to the border communities of Newport and Clarkston. The southeast Washington office enforced the residency requirement on eight Gem State families, said Clarkston supervisor Patricia Busse.
“We really thought there would be more, but there sure hasn’t been,” said Fritzi Reber, head of the Newport welfare office. “I don’t know, maybe they went to work.”
The welfare magnet theory, supported by politicians for decades, has been largely debunked by scores of academic studies.
One study found that less than 1 percent of families move for that reason. Another noted that the poor tend not to move because they can’t afford it.
The practice of restricting full benefits to newcomers was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, and, more recently, by federal judges in California and Pennsylvania.
Sheehan hopes federal judges will reject an appeal in the California case next month, bolstering the Washington suit.
“It’s in the public interest to ensure that Pennsylvanians are not driven into the streets or forced to go without food, shelter or heat due to an unconstitutional statute,” wrote Philadelphia federal judge Clarence Newcomer in October.
Welfare families move for the same reasons as others, said Honora Moore of the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition, including family, jobs, and because of a bad situation.
Hundreds of calls from welfare recipients come into her Seattle office. None ask about benefit levels, she says.
“It’s not people finding the best deal, it’s people trying to find a better life,” said Moore.
In Idaho, welfare rolls have dropped an eye-popping 70 percent. No one’s sure where the recipients went, although Boise food kitchens are doing a record business.
“Very few move from state to state to get cash assistance,” said Ross Mason of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE LAW The welfare law requires people to live in Washington a year before qualifying for full cash benefits, up to $840 a month for a large family. Without proof of residency, recipients get the amount offered by their previous state if it’s lower.