Last summer, federal welfare reform written by the Republican Congress and signed into law by then–President Clinton celebrated its 10th anniversary. With that anniversary came a rehashing of the tempestuous debate waged 10 years earlier in Washington, replete with editorials and panel discussions by wonks and hacks from all shades of the political spectrum. Conservatives and some liberals labeled it a success. Critics said that it was the economic boom of the 1990s that accounted for the aggregate decreases in poverty not welfare reform itself, and that we should not confuse a reduction in caseloads with the purported, but still elusive, goal of welfare reform, namely, reduction of poverty. Yet among the plethora of disagreements, many agreed that one provision had failed: the misguided and repugnant provision known as the family cap.
Sometimes referred to as a child exclusion policy, the family cap prohibits any additional cash assistance to a newborn child conceived while the mother is receiving welfare. The family cap policy repeals the standard calculation in which assistance for poor parents is determined by how many children that parent has. In effect, if a mother is raising two children in poverty and then has another child while on welfare, the government will not increase the amount of cash assistance given to that family. To the welfare agency, that child does not exist. That’s why the typical maternity leave granted to poor women following the work requirements is not given for mothersof “capped children.”
The policy was originally mandatory in the Republican version of the legislation in 1996, but was made a “state” option in the final statute. Twenty-four states have instituted the family cap policy and the Government Accountability Office estimated in 2001 that the policy affects “at minimum 108,000 families” in any given month.
The family cap policy is ineffective and immoral public policy. First, the policy has not done what it set out to achieve: reduce the birthrate of mothers on welfare. Proponents of the policy said that the family cap would create an economic incentive for mothers to abstain from intercourse or improve their contraceptive methods. Yet, as the Center for Law and Social Policy reports, “the available research offers no compelling evidence that they [family cap policies] have achieved the objective of reducing fertility.” What’s more, there is controversial evidence that it has increased abortion rates in some states, a revelation that has caused many on the religious right to demand its repeal.
But the real reason for repeal should not be based solely on whether the family cap is effective, but on whether it is ethical. The original welfare legislation of the New Deal arose from a belief that children should not suffer hardship simply because of their mother’s situation, and that the government should step in to redress that wrong.
The family cap amounts to a repudiation of that article of faith. The family cap policy does not fulfill its promise to reduce the birthrate of women on welfare. Instead, it promises to punish poor children by diminishing the assistance available to American families.
While the family cap might be seen as an aberration within the context of welfare reform, it is actually indicative of a trend in Congress’s policies toward children. Congress is comfortable with not distinguishing between poor adults and poor children. Both branches passed policies that do more to harm than help children in need. The focus of welfare reform in 1996 was on the relative morality of single mothers, when, in fact, the original federal welfare legislation focused on the material needs of children.
We are in need of a transformation in the way we let our government treat our children. That might take a generation, but in the meantime, we should repeal a policy that abandons newborns to a childhood of poverty.