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Massachusetts Governor Really, Really Wants to Restrict Welfare Benefits

Bryce Covert

Rather than sign a repeal of the state's welfare family cap into law, the governor sent that piece of the budget back to the legislature with a stipulation that would cut an estimated 5,200 children with disabled parents off of welfare completely and reduce benefits for another 2,100.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker surprised many advocates this week with his “disturbing” move unraveling state legislators’ repeal of a cap limiting the amount of cash assistance parents can get when they have another child. Legislators, however, are holding firm on their position and have pushed back against the governor’s “reasonable compromise.” What comes next is anyone’s guess.

Since 1995, Massachusetts has restricted how much cash assistance parents can get depending on how many children they have and when. If a parent has two children who were born before she enrolled in welfare, she gets $100 a month per each kid. If she had one of her children while enrolled, however, she won’t get any extra money to cover the needs of that child.

These welfare family caps, still in effect not just in Massachusetts but also in 15 other states, became a popular policy while Congress was debating welfare reform in the 1990s. They sprang out of the idea that they would keep poor women, particularly women of color, from having more children. In the words of House Republicans, the caps were meant to “discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by … denying increased [benefits] for additional children while on welfare.” Since then, research has found that not only do the families of welfare recipients look the same as those who aren’t enrolled, but family caps don’t work.

But in recent years Massachusetts lawmakers have had enough of this sexist and racist policy. This legislative term, the legislature passed a budget that included language to undo the family cap and increase benefits so that all families get the same amount, no matter when they had their children.

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Its future now hangs in the balance. Rather than sign the repeal into law when it reached his desk, the governor sent that piece of the budget back to the legislature with a stipulation: that rules for welfare be changed so that someone who receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) from Social Security—benefits for elderly, blind, and severely disabled people with little or no income—will have that counted against their eligibility. Such a change would cut an estimated 5,200 children with disabled parents off of welfare completely and reduce benefits for another 2,100. “For affected families, this would have been a 40 percent cut in their income,” said Deborah Harris, senior staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, one of the 122 organizations that have backed repeal of the family cap. Given the high cost of housing in the state, that “would mean that a substantial number of families, in addition to having their quality of life drastically impaired, would have been unable to maintain being housed and would have become homeless.”

Baker claimed in his letter to the legislature on the purported compromise that failing to change welfare rules while lifting the cap “could have the perverse effect of reducing incentives for [welfare] recipients to get back to work, and cause existing inequities in the [welfare] program to persist and expand,” MassLive reported.

Yet this is something Baker has tried to do twice before and has been blocked by the legislature both times. In fact, lawmakers added language to this year’s budget explicitly prohibiting him from making the change on his own. His addition of the eligibility change to the family cap repeal was “a poison pill,” Harris said.

Indeed, on Tuesday the legislature voted against Baker’s amendment and voted to reinstate its original language repealing the family cap by itself. Baker’s proposal “would be two steps forward, two steps back,” state Sen. Joan Lovely (D-Salem) said, according to MassLive. “Instead of penalizing children for when they were born, we would be penalizing them for having a parent on SSI …. We would move from one cruel policy to another.”

Baker now has ten days to sign the measure, veto it, or let it become law without taking any action. But if he vetoes it, because the legislative session ended at midnight on Tuesday, lawmakers won’t be able to override him until the next session begins in January. If Baker had simply vetoed the original provision in the budget, the legislature would have been able to override it before the session’s end; now it might not get the chance.

“Legislators have assured us that they will re-enact [the repeal] in January,” Harris said. But if the governor pushes the issue until then, “it will create a lot of confusion and chaos between now and January.”

“It’s a tricky game, but it’s not clear to us to what end,” she added. “I am truly optimistic that he [won’t] veto because it really is not clear what he would gain by it.”

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