MA Legislators Undo ‘Extraordinarily Cruel’ Family Cap Policy. Will Other States Follow? (Updated)

As lawmakers in Massachusetts act to lift caps on cash assistance for families, advocates are hopeful that a dozen or so states with such caps will follow suit.

[Photo: Mother and son playing with toys on floor at home.]
There has been no evidence that these rules actually affect welfare recipients’ family sizes. In fact, the families of people who receive government benefits are the same size as those who don’t receive them. There is evidence, however, that the caps increase poverty. Shutterstock

UPDATE, July 30, 10:45 a.m.: In a “disturbing” move on Thursday, Gov. Baker rejected the legislature’s repeal of the state’s family cap. As MassLive.com reported, the governor omitted the family cap lift from the budget when signing it last week. Instead, he returned the law change to legislators with an amendment aimed at modifying welfare eligibility in conjunction with eliminating the family cap, something the legislature had explicitly blocked him from doing. They now have to “vote on it as if it is a new bill. The governor then has another 10 days to sign or veto it,” according to MassLive.com. With the legislative session set to end on July 31, Rep. Marjorie Decker reportedly said that the legislature’s timeline and method to undo the state’s family cap is “still to be determined.”

Despite having two children, Jessica F. only received $478 a month from Massachusetts’s cash assistance program, known as Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the amount that a parent with one child typically gets. She was denied an extra $100 a month thanks to a “family cap,” a rule from the 1990s, yet still on the books, that bars families from getting increased benefits to cover any children that are born while they’re already enrolled in the program. She had her youngest son while she was still in need of welfare, so he was excluded.

During that time, she was “always making tradeoffs,” Jessica said in a written statement shared with Rewire.News. If she used the benefits to buy things for her infant son, that meant she couldn’t buy what her older daughter needed. Last year she had to put off buying winter boots for her daughter to buy diapers. “Someone is always waiting,” she wrote. But the extra $100 she would have gotten had her son been treated like her daughter would have almost covered the cost of his diapers.

Parents are also “hurt … that their child’s individuality, their child’s dignity, their child’s humanity is disregarded,” said Deborah Harris, senior staff attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

But after over two decades of restricting benefits, families like Jessica’s may soon be treated like any other. State lawmakers just passed a budget that undoes the cap and increases benefits for parents whose children were born while they were enrolled in welfare. This comes as legislators in New Jersey move to repeal a similar cap in their state, leaving advocates hopeful that the dozen or so states with such caps will follow suit. “One hundred dollars a month isn’t very much money, it’s not going to end poverty, it’s not going to solve the desperate situation that these families are in,” Harris said. “But it does make a difference.”

Family caps trace back to 1990s welfare reform, when part of the impetus for changing the country’s only cash assistance program, at least for U.S. House Republicans, was to “discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by … denying increased [benefits] for additional children while on welfare.” After federal reform passed, 22 states instituted family caps in their programs. Massachusetts’s welfare family cap has been around since 1995.

But since then, there has been no evidence that these rules actually affect welfare recipients’ family sizes. In fact, the families of people who receive government benefits are the same size as those who don’t receive them. There is evidence, however, that the caps increase poverty.

The campaign to repeal Massachusetts’s cap launched officially in the fall of 2016, shortly after California lifted its own cap. “We thought that this was an issue that we might be able to make progress on,” Harris said, “and it turned out we were right.”

Her group put together a coalition that eventually grew to include 122 organizations representing a wide range of causes: reproductive justice groups; religious groups, including Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish ones; civil liberties groups; health-care groups; racial justice groups; immigrant rights groups; diaper banks; and community organizations. Sometimes odd bedfellows, they mostly came to the issue for the same reasons. “The rule is offensive to the reproductive justice groups for the same reason it’s offensive to Catholic Charities,” Harris noted. “Both groups recognize that it is unjust and offensive to penalize the decision to have a child.”

Given all of that force, they were able to meet with more than half of the state’s 200 legislators, and each meeting included voices from a lawmaker’s particular district.

“Every meeting I was in, and I was in a lot of them, the main reaction we got from legislators was surprise that Massachusetts has such a rule,” Harris said. “They were appalled at the rule and they readily recognized that it was a policy that was not working and a policy that was harming children.” They were particularly moved by the fact that Massachusetts is one of just 16 states that still have a family cap. Other states, including Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, have gotten rid of their’s since the 1990s. “Do we really want to be seen as one of the states with this extraordinarily cruel policy?” Harris asked.

The legislative process to remove the cap moved quickly. Lawmakers introduced bills to get rid of the cap at the beginning of the next legislative session in January 2017. A year later, the legislation has passed.

“For Massachusetts, this is very fast,” Harris said. She chalks up their quick success to the size and diversity of the coalition that got behind the repeal. Massachusetts lawmakers who are horrified by what’s happening on the federal level were also eager to do something positive and concrete for their constituents. And she thinks victory stemmed from the concerted focus on this issue, rather than spreading attention to a number of problems. “Sometimes we’re fragmented [but] we decided to focus on this issue this time and I think that made a difference,” she said. “The family cap is such an extraordinarily offensive rule, and we felt that it was a priority to address it.”

The Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has until July 28 to sign or veto the budget that contains the provisions repealing the family cap, and he could still make adjustments to them. The legislature would then have to override his vetoes to put it into effect. “We’re reasonably optimistic that if he vetoes, the legislature would override,” Harris said. “The support in the legislature is overwhelming.”

New Jersey is another Northeastern state with a family cap in its welfare program. In fact, the idea originated there. In 1992, then-state assembly member Wayne Bryant came up with the idea of imposing a limit on welfare benefits for families that have children while enrolled under the idea that it would keep poor people from having more kids. “What this [cap] does is give welfare recipients a choice,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “They either can have additional children and work to pay the added costs, or they can decide not to have any more children.” And while Bryant himself is a Black man, he was also motivated by race. “Though we are not the majority of people on welfare, we are disproportionately there. So if all you see of us on television are drug addicts and welfare mothers, and if, in fact, too many of us are not productive members of society, when you see me you’ll judge me the same way,” he wrote at the time. “And so it became very important to me to make the social support system work right.”

“A lot of this was racial and sexist,” noted Raymond Castro, director of health policy at New Jersey Policy Perspective. “But the main effect has been to place children more in dire poverty.” In New Jersey, more than 20,000 children have been denied extra assistance because they were born while their parents needed help from welfare, reducing their parents’ benefits by $100 each.

But New Jersey may soon become one of the states to undo its anachronistic family cap. In 2016, the state legislature passed a bill repealing the family cap with bipartisan support, but then-Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it. Lawmakers regrouped, passing it again in 2017, but Christie once again vetoed it. Now that Christie has left the governor’s mansion and has been replaced by Democrat Phil Murphy, however, the chances are brighter.

The challenge is that the legislature has a lot of such unfinished issues on its plate, and there was a protracted fight over the budget. “This issue was crowded out a little bit because so much else was going on,” Castro said. The legislature included funding in its budget to make up for the extra benefits that would be owed to parents if the cap were lifted, but advocates are still waiting on the assembly to act, even after the state senate passed legislation to actually repeal the cap.

The assembly does expect to repeal the cap in the near future, when lawmakers come back from summer recess. Chances of Murphy signing such legislation seem good, given that he left the language authorizing funding in when he signed the budget. “We’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll get this done in the next few months,” Castro said.

If the governor in Massachusetts signs his state’s repeal and New Jersey is able to finalize its own, more states may be moved to do the same. “I do anticipate, particularly with New Jersey on the verge of repeal, that there will be more discussion about whether this is an issue that some other states might want to take up,” Harris said.

“New Jersey started all of this,” Castro added. “When people hear that the state that invented the family cap has abandoned it, I think you’re going to see more states drop out.”