Four years before President Bill Clinton signed legislation that he promised would “end welfare as we know it,” New Jersey started the process on its own. In 1992 it became the first state in the country to cut off additional cash welfare benefits for a family when they had a new child. Before the policy, a family would get an extra cash allotment to cover the needs of their new child. Afterward, if someone enrolled in the program had an additional child, they would receive no extra money.
It was explicitly enacted in an attempt to keep poor women, and particularly poor Black women, from having more children. “What this does is give welfare recipients a choice,” Wayne R. Bryant, the former New Jersey Democratic Assembly majority leader who came up with the policy, said in 1992. “They either can have additional children and work to pay the added costs, or they can decide not to have any more children.” He later bragged that the policy had led to an “astounding” drop in the birthrate among women on welfare. In advocating for the family cap, he described “123 blocks where there are no legitimate males” in his city of Camden, by which he meant “men who can rightfully take their place in that community,” thanks to the fact that welfare has taught “all the wrong values.” The family cap, meanwhile, “reinforced the ideas of self-responsibility and investment in the future.”
It’s a “terribly racist and classist and misogynistic policy,” said Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “It’s a poor baby penalty.”
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
But the policy quickly spread nationally after New Jersey enacted it. Republicans even included a pledge to “discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by…denying increased [benefits] for additional children while on welfare” in their 1994 Contract for America, the precursor for welfare reform. The language never made it into the final version, but 22 states took the initiative to create family caps anyway.
As of September 30, New Jersey is no longer one of them.
“It’s huge. [New Jersey] is the mothership of the family cap rule,” Bartholow said. “It’s a beautiful day when the place that started it all can…reconcile what it’s done.” She noted that her state of California, which got rid of its cap in 2016, had originally followed New Jersey’s lead in creating one in the first place. “You have to wonder, what if [New Jersey] had never done it?” she said. “Would we have had it, would other states have had it?”
Despite Bryant’s early data, research in the decades since shows welfare family caps don’t work. There is no evidence that family caps influence how many children poor families have. It’s not even true that poor families receiving government benefits have huge families. In 1990, only 10 percent of households receiving cash benefits had more than three children. Today, they have an average of 1.8 children, the same as the average for the country as a whole. “The idea behind the law has been really debunked,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey.
What family caps actually do is deprive families of the extra cash they need to cover expenses that aren’t covered by other programs, such as diapers, baby wipes, and car seats. This just increases their poverty. Koubiadis has heard stories, she said, of parents who only had one extra diaper for their baby for an entire day, and others who couldn’t go to work because they couldn’t afford the number of diapers required to send their children to daycare. Now a family of three that had a child excluded from extra benefits thanks to the cap stands to see an extra $134 a month, according to calculations by Brittany L. Holom, senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP).
The campaign to repeal the state’s cap launched in 2016 with a report from NJPP that found that more than 20,000 children had been denied assistance since the cap was enacted in 1992. “Those are 20,000 children who, in the eyes of the program, essentially didn’t exist,” Holom noted. Even in 2018, the cap lowered benefits for 1,235 families. It also disproportionately impacts families of color: About 80 percent of the state’s children on welfare are Black and Hispanic.
The 2016 analysis “really helped highlight those issues for legislators who hadn’t thought about this law…since it was enacted in 1992,” Koubiadis said.
The report was released just months before California repealed its family cap, and coincided with other state campaigns, such as in Massachusetts. As advocates in New Jersey fought to repeal their family cap, the movement gained support from religious groups who were concerned about the impact the policy has on children. Ron Haskins, a prominent Republican architect of welfare reform, has since said he would be “hesitant” to support a family cap today because it “creates hardships for families.”
Then the state elected Democratic Governor Phil Murphy in 2018. In New Jersey’s last two budgets, the welfare cap was effectively eradicated when lawmakers included extra money to pay families the missing benefits for their additional children. Still, the cap itself remained on the books, meaning that lawmakers would have had to keep including that money each year to keep it from denying families money.
The coronavirus crisis, however, focused attention on the need to get rid of the cap once and for all. “There was a focus on other issues in the last couple of years, up until the pandemic,” Koubiadis said. But “with the exacerbation of these inequities, and certainly racial inequalities, legislators as a whole recognized that this was the moment to repeal this.” With the law no longer on the books, the extra assistance for poor families will be automatically included in each year’s budget.
“The tide certainly has been turning, especially in the last five to ten years,” Koubiadis said. “Other states certainly should take a look at repealing this law as well.” Holom noted this is particularly true for other nearby states, such as Connecticut, that still have a cap now that New Jersey and Massachusetts have done away with theirs.
The fact that “it has been undone in the place where it began will spread across the country and inspire the remaining states,” Bartholow said, “to finally end their use of this very flawed intervention.” She’s heard from people who are interested in doing the same in Tennessee and Virginia.
Perhaps, she suggested, Congress could even consider legislating it out of existence, barring states from having this policy at all. Congress might even go so far as to reconsider the other parts of the current welfare program that similarly punish poor people who need assistance, such as time limits that kick them off after a certain number of years, work requirements that deny benefits unless someone completes frequent paperwork proving they are either working or looking for a job, and pursuing children’s parents for child support money to pay back the benefits.
“These are really disgusting ways to think about a safety net,” Bartholow said. “I hope it can also inspire people to think about what else we have [done] wrong.”