For Her Own Good

For Her Own Good

With the “family cap,” the state says to welfare moms: no more babies!


Angela B. sits at a card table in the dilapidated nave of St. Joseph’s Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The church, whose floors are covered with thin, wrinkled wall-to-wall carpeting, has forgone statues of Christ, lofty tributes to the Holy Trinity and stained-glass renditions of the Ten Commandments in favor of more prosaic stuff. Computers line the walls, garbage bags full of donated clothes are piled in a corner, five kids in an after-school program lounge on the altar doing homework and a scrawled sign warns: NO CURSING, NO FIGHTING, NO NAME CALLING.

Oblivious to the noise generated by the kids, 33-year-old Angela (names have been changed to protect privacy) sits with her head in her hands, deep in thought. “Thank God for St. Joseph’s,” she tells me. “If it hadn’t been for them I wouldn’t have made it.” Angela has been on welfare most of her adult life, and she has never been able to make ends meet. But lately things have gotten a whole lot worse. She runs her hands through her raggedly cropped hair and tells me firmly, “I wasn’t thinking to stay on welfare this long, not fourteen years.”

I’ve asked her what I thought was a simple question: “Tell me about yourself.” But she struggles. Her story unfolds in fits and starts. With long pauses in between.

I give it to you in a nutshell: One of ten kids with an abusive dad, Angela was kicked out of the house when she was 13; she never went back. A sixth-grade special-education student at the time, she dropped out of school. She was homeless for several years. At 18, she got married and had her first child. At 19 her husband lost his job. At 20 she had her second daughter and went on welfare. Her husband abused her. She left him. She went back. She left him. She went back. During a “reunion” she got pregnant again. She delivered via C-section. She got her tubes tied–she thought. There was a mistake. She got pregnant again. She tried to get her tubes tied again. The Catholic hospital where she was a Medicaid patient resisted at first. She appealed to the board. She got letters of support. The baby was born. The board granted her request. In 1998 she finally got her tubal ligation.

Why did she want it?

The question strikes Angela as absurd. “Uh, duh! I got four kids, how come!” Then, thinking of her youngest daughter, Beth, who is 3, she pauses. And, like all moms, she rushes to correct any confusion between not wanting to have another child in the abstract and not wanting this child. “I’m not saying I’d take her back in any way, because she’s an angel,” she says. “And God blessed me with that one. She’s a regular riot. A smart cookie. She picks up fast. She’s a joy.” She smiles and delivers up a cute anecdote as testimony. Then frowns as she returns to the big picture. Her life–in her words–in a nutshell: “I’ve just been dealt the wrong hand of cards my whole life.”

Bad Girls

The city of Elizabeth, the State of New Jersey and the United States of America disagree. They say Angela has failed to exhibit “personal responsibility”; not only did she bear two children out of wedlock but she did so while on the dole. Consequently Angela has become one of 108,000 women in the country whose children have been denied welfare benefits because of a “family cap,” a welfare policy that denies additional benefits to children born while their mother is on welfare. Angela is also a plaintiff in the country’s only class-action suit directly challenging the legality of the family cap.

Some history: In 1992, just as politicians were whipping themselves into a frenzy over “ending welfare as we know it,” New Jersey became the first state in the country to get a special family-cap waiver from the federal government. (Typically, Washington dispensed Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits to families based on the number of children. For example, a mother and child got $322 per month in New Jersey, a mother and two kids got $424, and so on, until New Jersey’s “experiment” exempted it from this rule.) With the passage of the 1996 welfare reform bill, now known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), states were given leeway to devise their own rules for welfare distribution. Many followed New Jersey’s lead and decided they could save money, decrease out-of-wedlock births and teach “personal responsibility” by capping the size of welfare families. Today, twenty-three states apply a family cap to welfare recipients.

New Jersey’s 1992 family-cap legislation foreshadowed the ensuing debate over welfare, evoking many of the emotionally charged issues–overt and implied–that fueled the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and that continue to swirl around its reauthorization this year. In New Jersey the term “personal responsibility” first hit its stride, tumbling from the lips of politicians across the spectrum. The notion of a war on poverty, long since abandoned, re-emerged as a war on indolence. A “crisis” in illegitimacy was identified. Children saw their protections chipped away as politicians sought to punish mothers for what they deemed bad decisions, like being late for work or having babies without having husbands.

In New Jersey and elsewhere, the reasoning behind the cap–if you can’t afford the kids you’ve got, what right do you have to procreate?–continues to be popular among Republicans and many Democrats. In New Jersey’s case, both former governors Jim Florio (Democrat) and Christine Whitman (Republican) supported the cap. The logic goes like this: Giving women additional money for additional kids, in amounts ranging from $20/month in Wyoming to $121/month in California, encourages women to bear children for the extra income. In order to learn “personal responsibility,” welfare moms ought to be treated like everyone else. That is, they ought to weigh whether or not they can afford another kid. The government should not be “paying” poor families for kids it doesn’t want. (Forget that we manifest some state interest in middle-class procreation via the federal child tax credit and dependent exemption.) Worse, the bulk of these babies are born out of wedlock, which is troublesome if you’re a Democrat because of the link between single motherhood and poverty, and if you’re a Republican because it promotes immorality, sanctions sex outside marriage, destabilizes the American family, etc.

Meanwhile, the family cap has had a small but persistent band of detractors, who together make for an array of strange bedfellows. Opponents–who range from Catholic Charities USA and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to NOW and the ACLU–argue that the cap is punitive toward children, violates women’s reproductive rights and plunges the poor deeper into poverty. None of them buy its premise: that women have babies for the extra cash.

Paying the Price

Today, Angela has four girls ranging in age from 3 to 15. She lives with her boyfriend and his two teenage daughters. Aside from caring for the six kids, she works part time–four hours a day, five days a week–at Cranford Hall Nursing Home. “I’m an assistant dietician.”


“I serve food,” she shrugs.

She is paid $7 an hour. If she doesn’t score the coveted overtime, she pulls in $140 a week. Welfare takes half (as part of a workfare program), she pays a babysitter $57 to care for her 3-year-old and she is left with $13. To supplement this income, and because her boyfriend’s teens were born pre-family cap and qualify for welfare, she gets a monthly public assistance check of $522 for her family of six children. She also gets a transportation voucher and Medicaid, and she could be receiving a childcare supplement if she hired a state-sanctioned sitter who would be paid as little as $53.60 for a full forty-hour week.

“I went to welfare and said, ‘What kind of person’s going to be watching my kid for $1.25 an hour?'” She asked her boyfriend’s brother to do it instead.

In the past, Angela and her girls have lived in homeless shelters, a relative’s basement and with friends. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey is $827, somewhat more than Angela’s $522 a month. She is on a waiting list for public housing, but holds little hope for a lease: “Some families are on the list for ten years.”

Though her two youngest girls were excluded from cash welfare payments, like all “child-exclusion babies” they still qualify for health insurance and Women, Infants and Children food (WIC), a federal program that pays for essentials like formula, milk, cheese, cereal and peanut butter. If you’re nursing your baby, WIC throws in extra products for Mom for a year. WIC does not provide things like diapers, approximately $36 a month for a toddler; snowsuits ($34 at KMart); or car seats ($59-$149 at Toys “R” Us). If your baby gets a cold or starts teething–not exactly hypotheticals–WIC does not cover Pediacare ($6.89), Anbesol ($8.39) or Motrin ($7.73).

Angela also gets food stamps valued at $327 every month. “Tight is not the word,” she says, explaining that the food stamps run out around the fifteenth of every month. “I’ve got six kids. Three of them are teenagers.” She shakes her head and laughs, “And they’ve got appetites!”

How does she make it? “I use the church here a lot,” she explains. And indeed, in the course of our conversation, Joanne Eash, who works at the church, has quietly fed Angela some food, given her a few children’s books that were donated to the church to take home to her kids, and slipped her some money so that her 13-year-old could buy her school pictures.

Charity, if not the state, has sustained Angela’s family. Chances are that will continue, regardless of the outcome of her lawsuit. In Sojourner A. v. The New Jersey Department of Human Services, Angela is seeking the welfare benefits she would have been entitled to prior to the family cap’s enactment; she is asking for an additional $128 a month.

A Legal Leg to Stand On

Angela’s children share the lawsuit with an estimated 28,000 children in New Jersey and the named plaintiff, Sojourner A. Like Angela, Sojourner had an unplanned pregnancy. Like Angela, Sojourner also considered and rejected the idea of abortion, then gave birth to a child who was excluded from welfare benefits. Unlike Angela, when Sojourner found herself pregnant a second time, she decided to have an abortion.

Was this abortion “coerced” by the state?

NOW Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU–for a change defending a woman’s right to have babies–say it is. “Clearly this law coerces women into having abortions that they wouldn’t ordinarily have,” says Lenora Lapidus, director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and one of the attorneys on the case. “What we support is women’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.”

They’ve filed this suit, along with a private law firm, in both federal court and New Jersey state court. They lost the federal case in 1995. But the 1997 state suit is currently on appeal in New Jersey’s appellate court. Because the New Jersey State Constitution goes further than the US Constitution in protecting individual privacy rights, attorneys believe they stand a better chance there. Their arguments prove interesting.

First, their legal briefs argue that the law “violates…equal protection by treating otherwise similarly situated children differently based on their parents’ reproductive choices and the timing of a child’s conception and birth.” In other words, the state can’t discriminate between a firstborn child and a thirdborn child.

They also insist that the family cap infringes on the right of poor women to choose whether and when to have children by “having both the purpose and effect of influencing women’s reproductive choices.” On the surface the state has not denied choice, but in reality it has narrowed a woman’s choices down to one “right” choice. (The law’s sponsor, New Jersey State Assemblyman Wayne Bryant, spelled it out to colleagues in 1992: “It is intended to discourage AFDC recipients from having additional children during the period of their welfare dependence.”)

By insisting that the government may not attempt to influence a woman’s procreative decisions through its power of the purse, the lawyers draw on an ironic legal precedent. In 1982, when the New Jersey legislature tried to cut off Medicaid funding for abortion, state courts struck down the statute. Though it didn’t make abortions illegal for poor women, the courts said, it made them inaccessible. As Laurence Tribe wrote in American Constitutional Law, the Medicaid statute “can be understood only as an attempt to achieve with carrots what the government is forbidden to achieve with sticks.” Though the US Supreme Court nixed sticks, it does allow carrots; New Jersey courts, on the other hand, have struck down both procreative “motivators.”

Finally, New Jersey law says you can’t interfere with the right to privacy unless there is a compelling reason for state interference. (And saving money, by denying newborns welfare dollars, doesn’t cut it as a legally “compelling interest.”) Problem is, the state’s professed interest is “to encourage self-sufficiency [and] personal responsibility, in order to alter and/or alleviate the cycle of welfare dependency,” and there is no evidence that the family cap is a means to this end.

In fact–minor oversight!–the state forgot to conduct any studies to test this assumption.

New Jersey’s Dirty Little Secret

Conversations with anyone involved in the family-cap debate–activists, lawyers, think-tankers and even the General Accounting Office–all wend their way around to “the Rutgers study.” This controversial study, commissioned by the state and written by Michael Camasso and a team of Rutgers University professors, found that the birthrate among welfare recipients dropped by 12 percent and the abortion rate climbed by 14 percent in the four years following the family cap’s introduction in New Jersey. The state declined to fund a proposed second part to the Rutgers study–the part that followed up on families’ well-being in the aftermath of the family cap–and did its best to suppress the study’s findings once it learned about the rise in Medicaid abortions. But the press got hold of the story and trumpeted it across New Jersey.

What didn’t make it into the papers is even more disturbing. “There’s no question that this abortion rate increase is tremendously higher among black women on welfare than among Hispanic and white women,” says Camasso. He has a few theories about why. “The answer may lie with providers; maybe there’s a different way of handling different women when they come into clinics,” he says. “Welfare reform’s supposed to work in an egalitarian way, right? I think this is another reason the state can’t really embrace this study.”

But Camasso’s conclusion that the family cap actually caused the birthrate to drop–rather than being one among many factors in play–has come under fire, most recently in a General Accounting Office report. The GAO notes that the birthrate among teens declined across the United States during the same period and that nationwide, the birthrate for second children declined among young women. Further, the birthrate among welfare recipients dropped by nearly 5 percent in the year before the family cap made its 1992 debut.

Even more relevant, perhaps, is something Camasso mentions in a footnote: During the course of his study, all of New Jersey’s welfare recipients saw their Medicaid switched to managed care. What he doesn’t note is the corresponding spike in contraceptive use. In fact, former Governor Whitman regularly touted the expanded accessibility and contraceptive counseling that accompanied the state’s 1995 switch to HMOs–mandated for all welfare recipients. As part of the orientation process, all women were advised about the availability of family planning, including free contraceptives, and pregnant women were specifically counseled during pregnancy about family planning. Yet another factor is that 35 percent of welfare clients mistakenly believe that the family cap means their newborn receives no benefits; unaware that they might still qualify for additional food stamps or Medicaid, they might not bother to report the birth. (“The way it was presented to clients was, ‘If you have another baby you won’t get any more money,'” says Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA. “Some families even thought that meant if they had another child they’d lose their entire welfare check.”)

After reviewing all the studies, the GAO drew this non-conclusion: “Due to limitations of the existing research, we cannot conclude that family-cap policies reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock births, affect the number of abortions, or change the size of the TANF caseload.” Moreover, it noted, “We did not identify any studies that evaluated the impact of the family cap on poverty.” In other words, no one knows how the “child exclusion” kids and their families are faring because no one has bothered to ask.

Meanwhile, opponents of the family cap walk a fine line. Arguing in the Sojourner case that the state coerced an abortion, they are admitting that the cap sometimes “works” by causing women to choose abortion. But they make a subtle distinction: While women might decide not to have babies if the alternative means destitution, they don’t have babies in order to get welfare. Ultimately, it seems, poor women think about all sorts of things–among which money is one–when deciding whether to bear a child. And while they’re more likely to have kids at a younger age–with fewer career prospects, why not?–they’re all over the map when it comes to beliefs about sex and how they jibe, or don’t, with behavior. Perhaps all that the evidence on family caps shows, in the end, is that when it comes to sex and birth control women on welfare have the same impulses, logical and illogical, that drive the rest of us.

Echoing a million middle-class American moms–with slightly different syntax–Angela is certain her daughters won’t wind up having kids too young because they’re good girls. “I tell them, ‘You wanna have kids like me? You want that responsibility? Look at how hard it is for me,'” Angela shakes her head. She’s talked to her teenage daughter Sarah about sex, but she’s “a good kid, too busy with seven pages of homework and activities at school” to be “going that way.” “She has a boyfriend,” Angela admits. “But she ain’t havin’ no sex and she ain’t gettin’ no birth control because she don’t need it, if she ain’t having it.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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