Supreme Court Nixes 'Two Class' Welfare

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In the race to reform welfare, it has sometimes seemed that the President, the Congress and the states have been in competition to see who could spend the least. On Monday, in the first significant decision applying brakes to that race, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that there are some constitutional limits beyond which the government cannot go. By a 7-to-2 vote, the Justices ruled that the people’s constitutional right to travel prohibits states from paying lower benefits to new residents than to longtime residents. The practice, which had been authorized by Congress in 1996, and whose intent was to let states keep out the needy they do not want from other states, strikes down the welfare residency rules of California and quite possibly those of 14 other states, including big ones such as New York and Florida.

"This is an important signal from an otherwise conservative court that some things will not be approved," says TIME senior writer Eric Pooley. Though the states have been given much leeway in making welfare harder to get, the court indicated today that one impermissible way is to create two classes of citizens based on length of residency. In the words of Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court: "Citizens of the United States, whether rich or poor, have the right to choose to be citizens of the State wherein they reside.... The States, however, do not have any right to select their citizens.... The Fourteenth Amendment, like the Constitution itself, was, as Justice Cardozo put it, 'framed upon the theory that the peoples of the several states must sink or swim together, and that in the long run prosperity and salvation are in union and not division.'"