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By Teresa Wiltz
Since the 1990s, nearly half the states have denied additional cash assistance to low-income mothers who have more children while receiving welfare.
But in recent years, so-called family cap laws have fallen out of favor. Last month, Massachusetts became the latest state to repeal its family cap, when state lawmakers overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.
Massachusetts joins New Jersey, which effectively repealed its cap last year as part of its budget — after two previous attempts were vetoed by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California repealed its maximum family grant rule in 2016.
Six other states — Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Wyoming — have repealed their family caps since 2002, according to data compiled for Stateline by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that tracks the laws.
Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia still have family caps in place, according to the Urban Institute.
Critics of the caps point to research showing they fail to dissuade welfare recipients from having additional children. Instead, researchers say, they can harm children’s health and development and deepen poverty.
According to the Children’s HealthWatch, a nonpartisan team of researchers and pediatricians at Boston Medical Center, families of infants, toddlers and preschoolers who were subject to Massachusetts’ family cap reported more household and child food insecurity and poorer health among children.
The Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law came to a similar conclusion in a 2016 study. It found that family caps didn’t decrease the number of children born on public assistance and pushed families further into poverty.
In Massachusetts, the repeal means that a family will receive an extra $100 per additional child each month, according to the Department of Transitional Assistance. The law, which took effect immediately and is retroactive to Jan. 1, will affect 8,500 children, according to the agency.
The monthly payment for a family of three in Massachusetts in 2018 was $593, while a family of four received $691. The repeal will cost the state an additional $13 million a year.
“While $100 a month isn’t going to lift someone out of poverty, it’s a real concrete difference in being able to meet a family’s needs,” said Naomi Meyer, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services.
Meyer said the cap forced many Massachusetts families to scrimp on basics. She says parents have told her they delayed changing their babies’ diapers to save money, did their laundry in the bathtub and walked for miles to the grocery store because they couldn’t afford bus fare.
“These are really heartbreaking, devastating stories,” Meyer said.
But critics argue that repealing the caps will cost states more, discourage self-sufficiency and reward families for having more children.
“There are families in Massachusetts who don’t qualify for public assistance who decided not to have more children even though they may want them, because they won’t be able to afford them,” said Paul Craney, spokesman for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for fiscal responsibility.
“Why should those who receive public assistance not have to make the same hard decisions?”
State Rep. Colleen Garry, a Democrat, was the lone vote against repeal in the Massachusetts House. “We need to remember the middle-class people we represent,” she told the Lowell Sun. “At some point, enough is enough.
“I personally have friends who would have loved to have more children, but they knew they could not afford the cost of raising additional children. There needs to be responsibility and accountability amongst individuals in the commonwealth.”
When he vetoed the New Jersey family cap repeal, Christie said the caps provide for equal treatment of welfare recipients and other residents, “who do not automatically receive higher incomes following the birth of a child.”
New Jersey lawmakers last year effectively repealed the cap as part of the 2019 state budget, and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed doing the same in next year’s plan.
The state Senate last year approved legislation that would make the repeal permanent, but it is currently in committee at the Democratic state Assembly.
History of the cap
The family cap laws came out of the push to overhaul state and federal welfare rules in the 1990s. The idea was to discourage out-of-wedlock births and encourage self-sufficiency. New Jersey was the first to implement family cap rules in 1992, followed by Arkansas, California and Massachusetts in 1994.
As part of the federal welfare overhaul in 1996, Congress replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The new law capped the amount of time a family could be on public assistance and instituted work requirements. The federal law allows states to opt out of the family cap.
In the intervening decades, most states, even those without caps, have declined to increase welfare benefits. Inflation has eroded the value of cash assistance, forcing 99% of TANF recipients to make do with less, according to a January report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.
But Ife Floyd, a senior policy analyst at the group, said more states are becoming aware of the connection between family cap rules and poverty. (New Jersey took things a step further and increased welfare cash assistance by 10% in December.)
Floyd also believes that some state leaders want to distance themselves from racial stereotypes that swirled around the implementation of the caps. Critics have long argued the family caps are rooted in racist tropes about “welfare queens” deliberately having more children to collect more cash assistance.
“We’re in a different era,” Floyd said.
The caps can be complex and vary greatly from state to state, according to the Urban Institute. In some states, families are exempt if they can prove a child was conceived because of rape or incest. Other states penalize mothers who have additional children soon after they begin receiving benefits.
California’s cap, which included the rape and incest exception, was a violation of families’ privacy because it forced women to prove they had conceived because of rape or incest or because their birth control had failed, said Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law & Poverty, a California-based research group that advocated for repeal.
“You’re going in to ask for help with rent because your employer didn’t give you enough hours,” Bartholow said, “and they’re asking you how your child was conceived.”
Ron Haskins worked on the 1996 federal welfare overhaul as a Republican aide to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. Now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Haskins said there was bipartisan support for a family cap in the 1990s, when out-of-wedlock births were skyrocketing among all Americans.
“You could say that all those policies could have a racial motivation, but it wasn’t a huge part of the debate,” Haskins recalled. “Why should taxpayers pay individuals to have babies outside marriage when they’re on welfare already? And most Americans would support that reasoning.”
But Haskins said that if he were working on the legislation today, he’d be “hesitant” to support the family cap.
“It’s pretty tough and creates hardships for families,” he said. “And poverty isn’t good for kids.”