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High Court To Review Welfare Law

January 11, 1999

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ After losing her job making car parts in Mississippi, Bridgitte McKelphin took her four children and moved to California for a better life.

When she arrived last month, Ms. McKelphin applied for public aid. 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 is being closely monitored by other states wishing 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.

``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.″

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.

Wilson argued the law was needed because California offered higher benefits to families with children than most other states.

``California needs to focus its limited resources on our state’s own longtime residents, not those who may be moving here to take advantage of our generosity,″ Wilson had said. ``Hard working families don’t get a pay raise when they move to California and neither should welfare recipients.″

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,″ said ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum, who will argue the case before the high court. ``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.″

He 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.

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.

For 19-year-old Tamika Smith, who moved to California two years ago from Arkansas with her five-month-old daughter, getting by on Arkansas’ $161 a month would be impossible.

In Los Angeles, she collects $356 a month, of which $300 goes to rent. She and her daughter live with her ex-boyfriend’s family in a neighborhood near the Los Angeles Coliseum.

When her $122 a month in food stamps runs out, his family helps, and Ms. Smith can usually earn extra cash styling hair in a friend’s beauty shop. But if she were unable to draw a full grant, she doesn’t know what she and her child would do.

``Up here, the cost of living is so high,″ Ms. Smith said. ``Arkansas is real cheap. But you have to take care of yourself in this state.″

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 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.″