- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2002

A West Virginia court has upheld time limits on welfare, ruling that while the state must provide basic services to the poor, it doesn't have to provide the aid as welfare checks.
The decision to uphold West Virginia's 60-month time limit on welfare checks is significant because time limits are a pivotal part of the 1996 welfare-reform law and have been adopted by almost every state in the nation.
The old Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) welfare program was an entitlement states gave poor families cash as long as they could prove their eligibility. Many families stayed on welfare indefinitely.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, created in the 1996 reform, ended that entitlement and set a five-year time limit on federal cash welfare benefits.
Today, 23 states have 60-month time limits, 17 states have time limits as short as 24 months, and eight states and the District reduce benefits after a time limit is reached, said Dan Bloom of Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC), which released a study of time limits this year.
Two states Michigan and Vermont have not set their own time limits, the MDRC study said.
Maryland has a 60-month time limit for benefits; families who comply with welfare-to-work rules can continue to receive some benefits beyond that limit. In the District, an adult in the family can be removed from assistance after 60 months. In Virginia, families are eligible for benefits for 24 months and ineligible for benefits for the next 24 months. Once they have had a total of 60 months of assistance, their case is closed.
The West Virginia case went to court this year when a group of children and their families said they had been cut off welfare unfairly by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR).
West Virginia has a constitutional obligation as "overseer of the poor" to provide poor families with "subsistence," the families argued. Therefore, the state had no right to cut off their welfare checks, the plaintiffs said.
Justice Warren R. McGraw, writing for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, agreed that West Virginia must provide basic services to the poor, but disagreed that this meant the state had to provide it in the form of welfare checks.
The state has "a universe of assistance programs available to West Virginia's poor," the justice wrote in the Dec. 9 decision. Moreover, the practice of ending one program cash welfare after 60 months "does not violate our state constitution."
The court, however, agreed with the plaintiffs that the DHHR was mishandling the cases of families who were trying to get a one-time, six-month extension of their welfare checks.
"The court found that the way they were cutting people off and not finding anybody eligible [for extended benefits] was problematic," said Daniel F. Hedges, an attorney for the plaintiffs and activist with Mountain State Justice in Charleston, W.Va.
If the state welfare panel denied an extension, the family could appeal to a hearing examiner, said Rick Wilson, a leader of the American Friends Service Committee in Milton, W.Va., who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs. But the welfare panel "would never meet the family and the examiner could never overturn a denial," he said. "It was Kafkaesque."
The court told DHHR to modify its policies, give examiners the power to grant extensions, and reconsider benefits for any families who had been denied extensions.

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