Possible Court Stories: A Preliminary Guide

By Greenberg, Mark | Nieman Reports, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Possible Court Stories: A Preliminary Guide


Greenberg, Mark, Nieman Reports


Almost as soon as Congress enacted welfare reform under the rubric of the Personal Responsibility and work opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, journalists and others began to ask whether the courts might stop the law from being implemented. With few exceptions, the answer is that it would not be possible for the courts to do so.

That is not to suggest that there win be little litigation for the news media to cover; rather, it is to suggest that the great bulk of what Congress did was clearly within Congress's authority to do. There will likely be plenty of welfare stories in the courts, especially challenges to the approach taken by Congress in two critical areas: treatment of legal immigrants and separation of church and state. Otherwise, most of the legal controversies win not involve challenges to the law itself, but rather disputes about the specific policy choices elected by states in exercising their new discretion. Depending on how states exercise those choices, the courts may be called upon to answer a difficult new set of questions about the nature and extent of constitutional and other safeguards for poor families.

The new law involves numerous changes to a broad array of programs affecting low-income families and households, including statutory changes affecting income support for poor families (the elimination of the AFDC Program and enactment of TANF block grants), childcare, the Food Stamp Program, the child support enforcement system, the Supplemental Security Income program, Medicaid and immigrant assistance for numerous public benefits programs. While much of the public discussion focused on the end of the entitlement to cash assistance for poor families, the law's $54 billion in federal spending reductions over six years is concentrated in three primary areas: curtailments in assistance to immigrants, reductions in the Food Stamp Program and a narrowing of the circumstances in which children who had previously been considered disabled will qualify for Supplemental Security Income.

There is no serious dispute as to the constitutional permissibility of most of the reductions in federal spending. For example, the law generates $5 billion in Federal savings by modifying the rules of the Food Stamp program so that benefits win not be adjusted to keep pace with inflation; Congress is constitutionally free to take such an approach. More immediately, the law generates an estimated $5 billion in savings by providing that, with limited exceptions, able-bodied individuals aged 18 to 50 without legal dependents will be eligible for food stamps only for three months in a 36-month period unless they are working or participating in a work program. It may (and will) be asserted that it is troubling public policy to terminate food stamp assistance to individuals who are willing to work simply because they have been unemployed for three months, but the fact that it is troubling public policy does not in itself create a constitutional question. Another principal area of reductions in projected Federal spending (of $7 billion over five years) involves narrowing the definition of disability for children under the SSI program. Here, there may be disputes about the specific application of the rules to particular children, and there could be a dispute if the federal government's regulations appear impermissibly restrictive, but there is no doubt that Congress has the constitutional authority to narrow the definition of disability.

The part of the law generating federal spending reductions that also generates serious constitutional questions concerns the sharp curtailment of eligibility for public benefits for legal immigrants. Even before the new law illegal immigrants were ineligible for virtually all public benefits. However, the new law makes most legal immigrants ineligible for Food Stamps and Supplemental Security Income (income support for the aged, blind, and disabled), makes most immigrants who enter the country on or after August 22, 1996 ineligible for federal means-tested benefits for their first five years in the country and allows states to deny Medicaid and TANF assistance to most immigrants who are not otherwise barred from receiving assistance under these programs.

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Possible Court Stories: A Preliminary Guide
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