Welfare rules spur
interstate migrations

A study finds welfare recipients
are drawn to states with lower
qualifying hurdles

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. >> Welfare recipients are willing to move from state to state to pursue benefits, but it's not the size of the check that matters, it's how difficult it is to qualify, according to a study by Penn State University researchers.

Welfare reforms enacted in 1996 created clearer differences between states' eligibility requirements, said Gordon De Jong, a professor of sociology and demography and a research associate at Penn State's Population Research Institute.

"There wasn't a whole lot of change in the welfare-benefit levels, but there were a lot of changes in eligibility rules and what people must do, in terms of behavioral requirements and responsibilities, to qualify or to continue to receive benefits," De Jong said.

"We found that these latter two dimensions -- eligibility rules and behavioral responsibilities and requirements -- make a difference, that people are willing to move from states that are highly stringent or became more stringent to states that are lenient or became more lenient," he said.

De Jong and his team analyzed the welfare policies of all 50 states, examining requirements for initial eligibility, time limits for receiving welfare and behavioral requirements, such as drug testing, or prohibitions on recipients attending school.

Using U.S. Census data, the researchers were able to track individual welfare cases when recipients moved, either within a state or to a new state.

They identified California, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Vermont and Washington as having welfare policies most attractive to outsiders.

Recipients were most likely to leave Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.

Hawaii was among the states with stringent eligibility requirements, but more lenient policies on recipient behavior.

De Jong said it was too early to say with certainty how many people were moving with welfare benefits in mind. The institute is still studying the issue.

Already, De Jong said, the data have shown one notable finding: Single mothers on welfare are less likely to move than single fathers or two-parent families. He said single mothers were the least likely to have money to pay for a move, and the most likely to rely on personal networks to care for children -- networks that might not be in place at a new home.

"The stereotype is that welfare moms are the most sensitive to benefit levels and their change," De Jong said. "And our findings show that that is an incorrect stereotype."

Lynn Peters, associate professor of social work at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, said the findings were not surprising, but could serve as a wake-up call to some states.

"In some cases, state welfare programs may have some policies ... that really are a barrier to helping poor people. To me, what this study indicates is that we really need to take a look at those and see if there is some way that we can change policy, help people become self-sufficient so they don't feel they have to move," Peters said.


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