Time to undo failed family cap policy

Hasn’t reduced births to women on welfare

MASSACHUSETTS IS ON the verge of repealing its welfare family cap statute. The family cap – also called the Cap on Kids – is the state law that denies a child $100 a month in benefits plus an annual $300 clothing allowance if the child was conceived while the family was receiving welfare.

Massachusetts enacted the family cap in 1995 thinking it would reduce births to women on welfare. It hasn’t worked out the way legislators expected. Parents have children for many different reasons; getting $100 a month isn’t one of them.

There are currently about 8,700 children in Massachusetts who are excluded from welfare benefits because of when they were conceived.  Welfare families in Massachusetts are the same size as other families – about 1.8 children per family. Instead of reducing the number of children born into public assistance families, the family cap causes acute hardship to children who are born – children who were not consulted about coming into the world.

Families are eligible for welfare only if they are already in deep poverty. The basic grant for a parent and two children with no countable income is $578 a month, barely one-third of the federal poverty level. If the family cap excludes one of the children, the grant is only $478 a month, 28 percent of the federal poverty level.

With incomes so low, families with an excluded child endure severe privation. Jessica F. had to use the grant for her toddler daughter to buy diapers and wipes for her baby son, instead of buying the boots her daughter needed. “Someone was always waiting,” she says. Rachel M. would listen to her baby crying and hope she would go back to sleep because she couldn’t afford enough clean diapers to change her as often as she needed. Because she didn’t have enough money for bus fare, she put her daughters in a wagon and pulled it two miles to the grocery store.  Once, a police officer drove up during a snowstorm and insisted that they get in his cruiser because they shouldn’t be out in such bad weather.

Boston Medical Center researchers found that families who were not receiving the full welfare benefit were more likely not to get enough healthy food and their children were more likely to be hospitalized compared to families receiving the full benefit. Children in families with an excluded child face increased risks of homelessness and other hardships associated with extreme poverty, including cognitive, emotional, and physical health challenges. The privations of childhood have long-term economic and personal costs for the children and for society.

Only 16 other states – including Arkansas, Mississippi, and South Carolina – have a family cap or similar rule. Seven states that had family caps have repealed them.

The Massachusetts Legislature is in the verge of undoing this failed policy. Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Sal DiDomenico filed bills in January 2017 to repeal the Massachusetts family cap. A coalition of 120 organizations – including faith groups, domestic violence organizations, and reproductive choice groups – came together to support the repeal effort.

Massachusetts can afford to make repeal effective in January. Revenue collections are strong. Deborah Harris of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, one of the organizations leading the effort to repeal the family cap, reports that the number of families receiving welfare in Massachusetts has plummeted – from 103,000 families in fiscal year 1995 when the family cap was enacted, to a projected caseload of just over 29,000 families in the coming fiscal year. Nominal welfare spending – spending without adjusting for inflation – will be less than 30 percent of what it was in 1995. We can use a tiny portion of the savings from the drop in the caseload to cover the cost of repealing this outdated and harmful policy in the coming fiscal year.

Meet the Author

Debbie Rambo

President and CEO, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston
The House and Senate both have adopted provisions ending the family cap, although with different termination dates. The conference committee, which is charged with resolving differences between the two versions , should adopt the effective date in the Senate budget. Our 8,700 excluded children should not have to wait another whole year to start receiving the small but much needed benefit of $100 a month. They should not have to wait another whole year for their existence to be acknowledged.

Debbie Rambo is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.