Court: Mass. Must Allow Welfare Recipients To Live At Home
BOSTON (AP) _ Welfare families must be given enough in benefits to live in their own homes, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in a decision officials said could lead to doubling annual state spending on welfare to $1.28 billion.
But the high court said the state Department of Public Welfare must only ask for more funds, while the burden of providing them rests with the Legislature.
Welfare activists, who say Massachusetts benefits are 40 percent below the federal poverty line, hailed Tuesday’s ruling.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought in 1985 by the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and the Massachusetts Coalition for Basic Human Needs.
They contended a 1913 state law requires the Welfare Department to provide enough benefits under the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children to allow families to live in their own homes.
The high court Tuesday rejected the state’s argument that the law means only that welfare families should be kept together.
″The furnishing of accommodations in hotels, motels and emergency shelters does not fulfill the department’s duty,″ Justice Herbert P. Wilkins wrote for the court.
About 500 of the state’s 84,000 welfare families live in hotels, motels or shelters, said Welfare Department spokeswoman Lee Chelminiak.
The administration of Gov. Michael Dukakis argued that raising benefits to the actual cost of living in Massachusetts, as determined by the department, would add $780 million a year to the current $500 million budget for AFDC.
Thomas Glynn, deputy commissioner of public welfare, said the ruling underscores the need for the department and the Legislature to work together on increasing welfare funding.
″We are extremely pleased and excited and anticipate relief on the horizon,″ said Katherine Mainzer, executive director of the homeless group.
″The court clearly affirmed the right of families on welfare to have benefits which meet living expenses and keep them within their own homes,″ she said. ″This is the highest level this case can go. This is a clear victory.″
The state Supreme Court said the Welfare Department has the duty to formulate a budget that covers the cost of raising children in one’s own home, and must review this figure annually in light of the cost of living.
The court said it appears the Legislature was aware when it set welfare payments for the current fiscal year that they were inadequate.
A department report compiled last August said the average family of three in private housing in Greater Boston needed at least $11,117 a year to live, or double the welfare benefits of about $5,700 at that time.
″Today’s emergency shelters may have more than a casual resemblance to almshouses,″ the court said, adding that shelters are often overcrowded and disrupt the patterns of family life.
In March, a Superior Court judge ordered the Welfare Department to increase benefits to a level that would allow recipients to live in regular housing. The state appealed that ruling to Supreme Court.