Analysis Law and Policy

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

Sheila Bapat

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

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.

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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.”

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.

News Law and Policy

California Takes Steps to Repeal ‘Unfair’ Welfare Rule Affecting 130,000 Children

Nicole Knight Shine

Known as the Maximum Family Grant Rule, the provision bars low-income women and families who have another child from receiving increases in welfare benefits under the state program CalWORKs.

A California family-benefit rule that critics have long denounced as racist and sexist would be repealed under a 2016 budget deal reached Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and key Democratic lawmakers.

Known as the Maximum Family Grant Rule (MFG), the provision bars low-income women and families who have another child from receiving increases in welfare benefits under the state program CalWORKs.

Critics have argued the rule denied much-needed assistance to approximately 130,000 of the state’s most vulnerable children. The repeal would cost the state $100 million in the first year, as the Sacramento Bee reported.

“CalWORKs was a critical program that helped stabilize our family on solid ground while I made that tough climb [toward self-sufficiency and empowerment],” said Bethany Renfree, former CalWORKs recipient and policy director of the State Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, in an online statement. “Repeal of this unfair rule will have deeply felt implications for all of the families who might have been denied help.”

The additional benefit for each child is an estimated $130 per month.

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Some 16 states have some form of the MFG rule on the books to deny increased benefits to growing families—often those of color.

California, where the rule has been in place since 1994, uniquely allows exceptions to the rule in cases of contraceptive failure. The exception applies only if recipients were using “approved” long-acting birth control—a provision critics have called an invasion of privacy.

As Jamelle Bouie of Slate reported in 2014, family caps—another name for these policies that deny families additional benefits if they have more children—were designed to combat the myth of the “welfare queen,” welfare recipients who bear more children to receive more aid.

Research has disproven this premise and also has suggested that family cap rules push families deeper into poverty.

A policy paper Elena R. Gutiérrez, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote for the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at the University of California at Berkeley debunks the notion that women on welfare have more children than do others. It notes that most CalWORKS families include one or two children, a figure consistent with the state’s overall birthrate. Although one national study suggested a link between family caps and lower birthrates, that effect occurred only in states that provided public funding for abortion care for low-income individuals, according to the paper.

Previous attempts to repeal the rule stalled in the state legislature, as Rewire has reported.

This go-round, the budget deal was backed by more than 130 groups, including ACCESS Women’s Health Justice; the American Civil Liberties Union of California; California Latinas for Reproductive Justice; the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice; the County Welfare Directors Association of California; the California Partnership; and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Last month, petitioners turned over 8,500 signatures to Gov. Brown, urging him to work with lawmakers to repeal the rule.

The budget act must still be voted on by the entire legislature and then signed by the governor.