Repealing Welfare Family Cap Laws a Common Goal for Some Pro- and Anti-Choice Groups

Welfare reform family caps punish the poor for having children. Repealing such laws sometimes creates common ground for pro-choice and "pro-life" groups.

Welfare reform family caps punish the poor for having children. Repealing such laws sometimes creates common ground for pro-choice and "pro-life" groups. Symbol for child benefit via Shutterstock

When welfare reform was signed into law by President Clinton 17 years ago this August, it freed states to implement most public benefits programs however they saw fit. As a result, many states chose to enforce family caps on welfare recipients—policies that restrict the amount of cash assistance that a family on welfare can receive if they have more children. Such laws not only exacerbate economic barriers for struggling families, but they also have deeply problematic reproductive justice implications: These laws penalize the poor for having children—something families of means would never face.

The reproductive justice implications of these policies have long been clear to advocates for the poor, and since the 1990s, the number of states with such laws has decreased. But efforts to repeal this relic of welfare reform have not just been a result of pro-choice advocacy. They have garnered deep support among many religious and social justice groups, and in some instances have been a point of common ground between the pro-choice and anti-choice camps.

In Minnesota, for example, “pro-life” and pro-choice groups formed a coalition to repeal their state’s family cap law earlier this year. In a press release, Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life Executive Director Scott Fischbach said, “The Family Cap has created undue economic pressure on poor families. It is time for the Minnesota Legislature to repeal this failed policy.”

Among the 15 states that still have a family cap in place is the blue state of California. Current California law prohibits CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids, a welfare cash assistance program) from aiding a child who is born into a family that has been receiving aid for ten or more continuous months.

A bill currently under consideration, AB 271, would repeal California’s family cap. Specifically, AB 271 would “prohibit the denial of aid or an increase in the maximum aid payment for a child born into the family of a CalWORKs recipient, and would not entitle increased benefit payments for months prior to January 1, 2014. This bill would prohibit the conditioning of eligibility for CalWORKs aid based on an applicant’s or recipient’s disclosure of information about being a victim of rape, incest, or contraception failure, as specified.”

Not all “pro-life” groups in the state are on board, however—even though the birth rate of CalWORKs recipients has been found to be consistent with that of the state’s general population. While the California Catholic Conference does support AB 271, California Right to Life told Rewire this week that it would not support AB 271. “This is not a bill we support,” Camille Giglio, the group’s director, said. “While we have sympathy for a woman who keeps a baby even in tough circumstances, a bill like this is just a way for agencies to be financed off of the problems that women face.”

Yet the effects of family cap laws on poor women and families are very real. According to a study by the Urban Institute, the family cap policy increases the poverty rate of mothers by 12.5 percent and increases the deep poverty rate of children by 13.1 percent. According to the background provided in AB 271:

While the short-term costs of eliminating the [family cap] rule are significant, more broadly, the long-term effects of its repeal could impact the projected lifetime physical, mental, and social costs related to children raised in poverty and the long-term economic and societal effects linked to this policy.

Giglio said she feels the bill is not wise given California’s fiscal situation. While California has over the past few years faced a deeply troubling fiscal situation, the state has slowly begun to crawl out of the mess. In June, The Economist reported that California will have a $4.6 billion surplus in the coming year. A year after the family cap is repealed, the estimated cost increase would be just $11 million to the state, but would provide each family on welfare an average of $122 more in their CalWORKs allocation—not a lot, but enough to prevent each family from slipping deeper into poverty.

Overall, there is a broad coalition of organizations in California working to pass AB 271, including anti-poverty, pro-choice, and religious groups. “We have support from the Catholic community and we’re looking for more support among the ‘pro-life’ community,” said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “The fact that the state would have a policy that interferes with the reproductive decision-making of women solely because they’re poor is not acceptable and very problematic.”