WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave states permission yesterday to save money on benefits for needy children by cutting back on monthly allowances when a child becomes orphaned or abandoned and goes to live with a relative already raising children on welfare.
Under the rule upheld unanimously, all children who live with a single provider who is not their parent are lumped together for welfare purposes as if they were all closely related family members, even if they are not.
The result is that each child's individual share of a monthly check goes down.
Similar rules are on the books in 29 states.
Welfare rights groups had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the court to strike down such an approach. "By folding an abandoned child into the same assistance unit as the extended family that takes him in, the rule dramatically diminishes grants to both the child and the family assistance unit," legal aid groups told the justices.
"Faced with this reduction, a poor family is less likely to take in an abandoned child."
The American Association of Retired Persons also said that the one-welfare-unit rule will have a major financial impact on many of the 633,000 households in which a grandparent is raising grandchildren, often on welfare.
The Justice Department, however, had joined California and other states that have such rules in urging the court to uphold them. Nothing in federal welfare regulations, the department said, conflicts with the one-unit approach. The Supreme Court agreed in a unanimous decision upholding California's version of the rule.
Maryland does not follow the one-unit rule at stake in the court case. Needy children are treated as a single unit for welfare purposes in Maryland only if they are brothers and sisters living together, according to Helen Szablya of the state Department of Human Resources.
The practical effect of the rule upheld yesterday is illustrated by the situation of one California grandmother involved in the court case. Before the rule was issued, Verna Edwards was receiving $901 a month for caring for three needy children -- a granddaughter and two grand nieces. The granddaughter made one welfare unit, the two grand nieces a second. After California put its rule into effect, the household got $630 as a single unit -- a reduction of $271.
As a result, the grandmother, who is disabled, had to borrow money from a loan shark, and still there was not enough money to provide the children with adequate clothing, according to legal papers filed in the case.
Mrs. Edwards and two other women caring for relatives' children who had been orphaned had gone to federal court to challenge the California rule, contending that it violated federal regulations governing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, one of the nation's main welfare programs.
They won their case when a federal appeals court in late 1993 struck down the state's rule. After that decision, federal officials ruled that federal regulations permit a rule like the one in California.
Other lower federal courts in separate cases had voted to uphold such rules, creating a conflict that the Supreme Court cleared up yesterday.
The court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, found no conflict with federal regulations.
"California is simply recognizing the economies of scale" that result when "children share a household," the court said.