This Law Was Based on a Racist Stereotype. Now It Punishes Thousands of Families for Being Poor. 

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June 17 2014 11:47 PM

The Most Discriminatory Law in the Land

It was based on a racist stereotype of unfit black mothers. Today, family cap laws do nothing but punish the poor for being poor.   

Family Caps 1.
Matilde Ascencio holds her 18-month-old daughter Vitzal as she waits in line with other families to receive aid from Feed The Children on May 9, 2009 in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Last April, Melissa Ortiz, a low-income mother of four, gave testimony to a committee of the California Assembly detailing her life on the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids program, or CalWORKs, the state’s welfare program.

“When we first had the twins, the only person in my family getting aid was my oldest son,” she said. “We didn’t have money to buy them car seats to get home [from the hospital]. …We didn’t have money to pay for diapers, wipes, shampoos, and toiletries. … I am here to tell you that I am trying my best to be a great mom. I do not need to be punished for deciding to have children.”

Ortiz was referring to the Maximum Family Grant rule, a provision of CalWORKs that denies assistance to new children in families that received benefits 10 months before the child’s birth. Other states have similar rules, and broadly, they’re called “family caps.” Ortiz and other advocates are lobbying California state lawmakers to repeal these caps, which they argue are harmful and counterproductive. And they are: With four children, Ortiz received just $516 a month in aid from CalWORKs. “I had to go to charities, wait in line, and hope that the charities had diapers that day,” she writes, explaining the impact of family caps on her life. “I am constantly trying to pay just enough to not have [the utilities] shut off.”

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

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For women like Ortiz, new children become a burden to carry—a threat to their livelihoods. But that was always the point. Family caps were designed to make life more difficult for low-income mothers, to thrust them deeper into poverty, and thereby discourage births. Thousands of families occupy the lowest rungs of American society because the state has punished them for having a child it didn’t want them to have. What’s more, in the 16 states where caps exist—including California, Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona—the most affected women look like Ortiz, women of color who have been penalized based on a racist stereotype about their worthiness as individuals and fitness as mothers. Indeed, of all of our country’s discriminatory policies, family caps are one of the few that actualizes this prejudice into policy, and in the process, it echoes some the ugliest chapters of our past.

Twenty years ago, House Republicans issued their Contract with America, a concise description of their agenda for the next two years, should they win the majority. Republicans promised procedural reforms—open committee meetings and an audit for fraud—and substantive policies, from crime control to new tax cuts. The third item on their policy list was the Personal Responsibility Act, which would “discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased [benefits] for additional children while on welfare … to promote individual personal responsibility.”

The language is dry, but the object is clear. If elected to the House majority, Republicans would pass “family caps” and keep your tax dollars out of the hands of irresponsible welfare mothers who had babies for cash. In less inflammatory terms, the family cap was intended to create disincentives for mothers on welfare to have additional children, easing the public burden and providing the poor a path to upward mobility.

Of course, the policy was based on a myth, the idea of the sexually irresponsible “welfare queen.” In 1990, just 10 percent of households that received Aid to Families with Dependent Children—the precursor to today’s federal welfare program—had three or more children (most had two or fewer). Those figures were down from the 1960s, when 32.5 percent of such families had four or more children. In 2013, the Bureau for Labor Statistics noted that “average family size was the same, whether or not a family received assistance.” Public perception notwithstanding, there’s no difference in family size between those that collect welfare and that those that don’t.

Moreover, the notion of family caps presupposes that welfare recipients are somehow gaming their reproductive choices in order to gain the maximum return. It’s an absurd idea, as few people—of any income level—have the necessary time or sophistication to make that kind of calculation, which hinges on a web of federal and state regulations. And it’s even harder to believe that anyone who did would go through the challenge of pregnancy and childbirth for $40 or $50 more a month.

Not that this dissuaded conservative lawmakers. State caps began to appear in the early 1990s, with New Jersey and Arkansas adopting caps in 1992 and 1994, respectively. In 1995, true to their promise, House Republicans passed a welfare reform bill with mandatory family caps. In the Senate, however, Democrats joined with moderate Republicans to defeat the caps over the objection of Majority Leader Bob Dole, who warned, “If we don’t deal with out-of-wedlock births, then we’re really not dealing with welfare reform.” He continued: “The crisis in our country must be faced. Thirty percent of America’s children today are born out of wedlock. … Families must face more directly whether they are ready to care for the children they bring into this world.”

Family Cap 3.
Elijah Salters stands with his mother, Kimberly, outside of their current residence at the Auburn Family Residence, a shelter for homeless families and individuals, on Feb. 21, 2014 in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the conference report, House and Senate representatives compromised with mandatory family caps and an opt-out provision, but President Clinton issued a veto, leading to a final bill—signed in August 1996—that omitted a cap requirement, but allowed states to use existing policies, adopt new ones free from federal regulation, or avoid family caps altogether. Of the 16 states that have a family cap policy today, most passed in the aftermath of welfare reform and the introduction of Temporary Aid for Needy Families, the current federal welfare program.

There’s little evidence that family caps work as advertised. What is unquestionably true is that they make poor families poorer. A 2006 report from the Urban Institute found that family caps increase the “deep poverty” rate of single mothers by 12.5 percent, and increase the deep poverty rate of children by 13.1 percent. It’s easy to see how this works. In Maryland, a state without family caps, the average benefit for a single-parent family of three is $574. If, while receiving that benefit, the parent had another child, it would rise to $695, a 17 percent increase. By contrast, in Virginia—where the benefit for a family of three is $389—it would stay the same (as opposed to growing to $451). And when you consider the generally low benefit levels of family cap states—in Georgia, the average monthly benefit for a three-person household is $280, in Mississippi it’s $170—what you have is a recipe for greater poverty.

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