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'Welfare Migration' - Does It Happen?

IT'S time to determine whether people really move from one state to another to obtain higher welfare benefits. The debate on this issue has often been sharp, but the jury is still out.

Wisconsin is preparing to get the answer.

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In a three-year pilot program in four test counties - to be contrasted with four "control" counties - Wisconsin plans to experiment with a "two-tier" welfare payment. In the test counties the state would, for six months, pay to each newcomer family qualifying for Aid to Families with Dependent Children the same AFDC amount they were entitled to in the state from which they came; after six months the family would receive Wisconsin's usual AFDC benefit. Contrasting the influx of newcomers into the two sets

of counties should answer some questions about "welfare migration."

Here is why we want to know.

In a recent three-month period, almost 20 percent of the new AFDC case load in Milwaukee County was made up of individuals who are new to Wisconsin - they have been in our state less than 90 days and have never lived here before.

Newcomers comprised almost 16 percent of the new AFDC case load in Kenosha County, and more than 14 percent in Dane County (Madison). Statewide, 12 percent of new AFDC cases were people new to the state.

Wisconsin is an attractive state and people know it. We have lakes and clean air, good schools, a strong economy, a wonderful quality of life - and welfare benefits that have been the 10th highest in the country.

For an AFDC family of three, Wisconsin's current monthly benefit is $517. All but one of our neighboring states pay substantially lower benefits. The comparable benefit in Illinois is $367 per month; in Ohio, it's $334; and Indiana, $320. In Iowa and Michigan the benefit is $426 and $459, respectively. Minnesota's monthly benefit is slightly higher than Wisconsin's at $532.

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Wisconsin isn't the only state where there is great interest in determining why welfare recipients move from one state to another. We're looking for state legislative approval to seek a federal waiver to permit the experimentation with the two-tier AFDC benefits.

Welfare migration is a major public-policy issue for state governments. For us the bottom line is: Can Wisconsin taxpayers afford to underwrite the poor from other states when some other states are actually cutting back their welfare programs?

The states make a variety of commitments to the programs for the poor, and there is fallout - it appears - for those states that step up to those responsibilities with greater support.

Surrounding the two-tier issue has been a separate debate about the constitutionality of determining benefit levels based on residency and the impact on interstate travel. We believe that our proposed experiment meets the constitutional tests, but we welcome the opportunity to help bring to resolution the legal questions as well.

Should those states that don't duck their responsibilities to assist their poor face the financial burden brought about by the attractiveness of their benefit levels?

It's a key issue for this decade, brought front center by a slower national economy that has put stress on state budgets. Wisconsin's two-tier pilot should assist the nation in bringing to resolution its debate on welfare migration.

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