The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that welfare families must get enough money to allow them to remain in their own homes, a decision the state says could cost $780 million a year.
The ruling was hailed by welfare activists who say Massachusetts benefits are 40% below the federal poverty line.
The decision came in a suit filed by the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and the Massachusetts Coalition for Basic Human Needs.
The groups contended that a 1913 state law requires the Department of Public Welfare to provide benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program that allow welfare families to live in their own homes.
The Administration had 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 $500-million state welfare budget.
"As long as (the law) directs the department to provide aid sufficient to enable AFDC recipients to have homes, and not just necessities, the department must reasonably seek to fulfill its obligation with such funds as are available for the purpose," the high court wrote.
"The furnishing of accommodations in hotels, motels and emergency shelters does not fulfill the department's duty."
If funds are insufficient, the department should seek more money from the Legislature, the court wrote. "The Legislature controls the extent to which it will perpetuate the inconsistency between (the 1913 law) and the AFDC standard of payment," it said.
About 500 of the state's 84,000 welfare families live in hotels, motels or shelters, welfare department spokeswoman Lee Chelminiak said.
A welfare department report compiled last August under court order said the average family of three in private housing in Boston needed at least $11,117 a year to live, or double the welfare benefits of about $5,700 at that time.
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 financing.
"First of all, the decision says the welfare department did not break the law. Second, it says the Legislature remains the key governmental body that sets welfare benefits," Glynn said.
Katherine Mainzer, executive director of the homeless group, called the ruling "a clear victory."
"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.
Barbara Sard, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the ruling will pressure the Administration of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to ask for welfare increases far greater than the 6% sought for this fiscal year.