By Leslie Gordon
A new report by Berkeley Law’s Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice (CRRJ) highlights the flaws in the “welfare family cap,” a policy that denies additional cash aid for babies born into families already receiving financial assistance.
The center’s non-partisan policy analysis, Bringing Families Out of ‘Cap’tivity: the Path Toward Abolishing Welfare Family Caps was published on the 20th anniversary of so-called welfare reform. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which ushered in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and, with it, the invitation for states to maintain or enact welfare family cap policies without federal oversight. The report illustrates how these family caps have actually intensified poverty, instability and poor health for already struggling families.
After welfare reform passed, 24 states enacted family cap policies. According to the CRRJ analysis, all of them have failed to achieve the policy’s primary objective of reducing the number of children born into families who receive public benefits. Currently, 17 states still have some variation of a family cap. Twelve states deny eligibility for basic needs cash grants to babies born into families already receiving that benefit.
The report details how family caps have exacerbated poverty and perpetuated stereotypes about welfare beneficiaries and describes the policy as rooted in racist, classist and sexist views based on unproven theories of behavior modification.
“These policies have failed to reach their proponents’ aims of disincentivizing childbearing and reducing the size of families receiving cash assistance,” according to the brief. “By driving families deeper into poverty, these policies destabilize housing and food security while threatening the health and well-being of the poorest children.” Welfare family cap policies are pejorative and punitive, according to the CRRJ analysis, harming the state’s economy while failing to address structural sources of inequity and poverty.
Importantly, the brief also chronicles the repeal efforts of the 11 states that have considered repealing their family caps since 2002. The most recent abolition of family caps occurred in California in June 2016 as part of the state’s budget revision.
“We’re hoping that California’s experience provides transferable lessons to other states and that family caps will be abolished nationwide,” said Jill Adams, executive director of multidisciplinary research center dedicated to issues of reproduction. “California can serve as a beacon to other states. We hope that this paper will embolden other advocates.”
While serving as a fellow at the Women’s Policy Institute, Nayantara Mehta ’06 spent two years working to get California’s family cap policy repealed. “It was shameful of California to have such a horrible, misguided policy in place for so long, especially when the state takes a leadership role in so many other progressive policies,” said Mehta, now a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “It’s important for California to be one of the states in a wave of family cap repeals. The brief does a really good job of establishing momentum and providing a lesson for advocates in other states.”
According to CRRJ’s Adams, California’s repeal was the result of “an amazing confluence of interested parties: direct services providers, academics and legislators.” The new report has been distributed nationally in the hopes of starting more conversations about welfare family caps with anti-poverty and reproductive rights organizations. “We’re also co-sponsoring a nationwide webinar this winter in the hopes of fanning the flames,” she said.
Isa Hutchings ’18 edited and refined a rough draft of the brief this summer during an internship at the center. “One of the things I really enjoyed about working on the brief was that it was a way of taking some of my core beliefs and values and applying them out of the classroom,” said Hutchings, who has a master’s in public health and worked on reproductive health as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador before law school. “Through this kind of writing, I learned that I could impact the real world. It was a really empowering thing to be a part of. That’s something I love about Berkeley Law: you’re not just stuck in a classroom. There are many opportunities to gain real world experience.”