High Court to Hear Welfare Challenge : Judiciary: California seeks to reduce payments to new immigrants and to limit benefits to extended families. Outcome may signal ruling on Prop. 187.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new Republican Congress has pledged to reform welfare this year. The Clinton White House says that it will try to do the same.

But this week, the Supreme Court gets a head start by taking on the welfare issue in two cases from California.

Led by GOP Gov. Pete Wilson, state officials are seeking the authority to reduce welfare payments for one year for newcomers to the state and to limit payments to extended families.

Both proposals were rejected by the federal courts in California, but they are likely to get a far better reception from the Supreme Court.

Under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the high court is inclined to give states wide latitude, especially when it comes to how they spend their money.

The outcome also may signal how the high court is likely to rule on Proposition 187, when the case reaches it. In both instances, the state's lawyers will urge the justices to ignore precedents set by a more liberal court, which frowned upon discrimination against newcomers, whether new residents seeking welfare or illegal immigrants seeking public education for their children.

The first case before the court concerns a 1992 state law that set temporarily lower welfare benefits for new residents. Wilson said that California has the nation's fourth highest welfare benefits and that they act like a magnet to attract poor people.

But legal aid lawyers challenged the new restrictions as unconstitutional. They filed suit on behalf of Deshawn Green who had grown up in Sacramento but moved to Louisiana in 1985. After having two children there, she returned to Sacramento in December, 1992, just as the new law took effect.

As a California resident, she would have received $624 per month in welfare for herself and her two children. But under the new law, she received for 12 months the benefit she would have received in Louisiana: $190 per month.

"You can't live in California on that," said Sarah Kurtz, a legal aid lawyer from Redwood City who represented Green.

In court, state lawyers said the two-tier system was justified because of the budget crisis. Each year, California spends about $6 billion for Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The temporarily reduced benefits for newcomers would have saved $22 million in 1993, the state said.

But a federal judge in Sacramento struck down the measure on grounds that the Constitution bars states from discriminating against new residents.

The law "places a penalty on migration" across state lines, said U.S. District Judge David F. Levi. He relied on a series of high court rulings that have struck down state laws that shortchanged new residents.

On Tuesday, the high court will hear the state's appeal of the case (Anderson vs. Green, 94-197).

The second case concerns how a family is to be defined for welfare purposes.

Under California's regulations, all children receiving welfare benefits in a household are defined as "one assistance unit," even if some of the children are not siblings.

But in other states a niece, nephew or unrelated child added to the household by a parent or grandparent is defined as a "second assistance unit." This results in a higher total benefit.

For example, a needy mother with three of her own children receives $788 in AFDC benefits. But suppose the same woman has two children of her own and one niece living with her. If they are treated as different units, she would receive $663 per month for her and her children, plus $326 per month for the niece, a total of $989 per month.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the California regulation as violating federal welfare regulations.

Welfare-rights advocates say that the one-assistance-unit rule will dissuade grandparents or other relatives from taking in a child in need of care.

But on Wednesday, the court will hear the state's appeal of the case (Anderson vs. Edwards, 93-1883).

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