In the early 1990s, a New Jersey lawmaker made history when he came up with an idea for the state’s poor constituents that was saturated with sexism and racism: denying extra welfare benefits to families that had additional children in an attempt to keep them from expanding. Now a quarter century later, advocates and lawmakers in the state are fighting to get rid of the family cap once and for all.
They nearly tasted victory this month—state legislators wrote language into a budget agreement that would have temporarily repealed the family cap for the year. But Republican Gov. Chris Christie quietly scratched that language out before signing it into law. Now their hopes rest on a bill currently sitting on Christie’s desk that would eliminate the state’s welfare family cap.
The history isn’t pretty. In 1992, then-New Jersey State Assembly member Wayne Bryant crusaded to upend his state’s welfare program, focusing most extensively on one particular change: the family cap.
The Democratic lawmaker pushed his policy in an explicit attempt to curb the family sizes of poor state residents who needed cash assistance. “What this [cap] does is give welfare recipients a choice,” he said at the time. “They either can have additional children and work to pay the added costs, or they can decide not to have any more children.”
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In an op-ed for the Washington Post a few years later, he bragged of how the policy seemed to have led to an 11 percent drop in birth rates among recipients.
The motivation wasn’t race-neutral, either. Bryant, himself a Black man, wrote, “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. And so it became very important to me to make the social support system work right.”
Bryant didn’t deploy the myth of the “welfare queen” explicitly, but his reforms, and the reasoning behind them, stemmed straight from it. After Ronald Reagan introduced the idea in campaign speeches in the mid-’70s, the country became gripped with a mania about the idea that Black women were enrolling in welfare so they didn’t have to work and having as many children as they could in order to receive higher benefits. Never mind that a large majority of recipients worked in a given year, nor that only 10 percent of households on welfare in 1990 had more than three children.
Bryant’s experiment in New Jersey would eventually worm its way into Congress’ debate on overhauling the entire country’s welfare system. When House Republicans put forward their Contract with America in 1994, it included a pledge to “discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by … denying increased [benefits] for additional children while on welfare.” After reform passed in 1996, 22 states eventually implemented their own family caps.
Since then, seven have reversed course, once again offering more assistance to help a poor family cover the needs of additional children it welcomes into the world. There has also since been no evidence that family caps affect welfare recipients’ family sizes—which look the same as people who aren’t enrolled in public benefits—while instead they serve to increase poverty.
But New Jersey’s cap has remained, denying more than 20,000 children the extra cash assistance they would have otherwise received.
“It’s not a huge number over such a long course of years, but still you’re talking about some of the most vulnerable families in the state,” said Jon Whiten, vice president of advocacy group New Jersey Policy Perspective. “The family cap was a policy that really just punished the poor for being poor … That’s unconscionable.”
In New Jersey, a mother who’s enrolled in the program and has a second child gets just $322 a month, compared to the $424 a month she would have gotten if she had her child before enrolling. “It’s just unbelievable to me that we can expect people to survive, especially in a high-cost state like New Jersey, on that low of an amount,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey.
Repealing the cap, on the other hand, would cost the state $2.3 million a year.
Momentum to do so didn’t really get going until late 2015, though, when Whiten’s organization started talking about the policy with lawmakers and then published a report on the cap. “That really brought to light for legislators … that this family cap is hurting families,” recalled Koubiadis. “Some of our legislative leaders have even said … that they had no idea how harmful these policies were.”
The advocates convened a large coalition, pulling in not just anti-poverty organizations but also faith groups such as the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey.
It didn’t take long for action to follow.
“The family cap just is … devastating because it’s the children that end up getting punished,” said Assembly member Liz Muoio (D), who has sponsored legislation to get rid of it. “Child poverty is both inhumane and costly for states.” She also noted that the racial aspect hasn’t subsided; children in poverty continue to be disproportionately people of color.
“We should do better by our state’s children,” she said.
The 2016 bill passed with bipartisan support. “It pretty much sailed through,” Whiten said. It went from a press conference to passage within four months—pretty unheard of, Koubiadis said, for something not being pushed by the governor himself.
But Christie vetoed the bill last year. In his veto message, he said the cap “serves to equalize treatment of [welfare] recipients and other residents of the state who do not automatically receive higher incomes following the birth of a child.”
“I will not sign a bill that will alter the carefully constructed balance between assistance and equity reflected by the family cap,” he added.
Advocates and lawmakers could have decided to simply wait in the hopes that the state will get a friendlier governor after the gubernatorial election later this year. But the issue held too much importance to let it dwindle. “We had some momentum from last year with the legislation being passed, so we decided to just go ahead and get a new set of bills going,” Whiten said.
The legislation once again flew through the legislature in a matter of months.
Then lawmakers spotted a new opportunity in the budget agreement. Christie said he would sign off on all of the legislators’ additions to a budget agreement after the state government briefly shut down. But instead, at the last minute, he removed the family cap language.
“He went after the state’s probably most vulnerable groups … which are very poor children,” Muoio said. “Those are what he decided to redline out of this. It’s unconscionable.”
No one is very hopeful that Christie will sign the current bill into law, although Muoio would like to try to override a potential veto if it happens. A spokesperson for the governor declined to comment on what Christie will do. Still, everyone has their sights set on next year. Muoio plans to reintroduce the bill early in 2018.
“We built up some legislative champions and got people engaged in this issue,” Whiten said. “It passed relatively easily, so there’s no reason to think it won’t again next year.” If the governor’s race goes the way they hope, they can finally “put that punitive and awful policy where it belongs in New Jersey, which is in the history books, not on the actual books.”
“I don’t see how we have a choice as a state, I really don’t,” Muoio added. “It’s an embarrassment to be in the position we’re in.”