Massachusetts has the chance to correct a policy that is both harmful to children and ineffective – the welfare Cap on Kids, which denies benefits to children conceived while the family is on welfare. By lifting the Cap, the Commonwealth will not only help some of the state’s most disadvantaged children (9,000 are currently denied benefits), it also will likely have a significantly positive impact on some of the region’s most vulnerable communities.
State Senator Sal DiDomenico and State Representative Marjorie Decker have introduced legislation that would redress a mistake Massachusetts made in the wake of federal welfare reform in the mid-1990s. At that time, Massachusetts passed legislation that prevented families from accessing benefits for children born after that family received assistance from the state. The Commonwealth was not required to pass this Family Cap, but we did – joining states like Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
Organizations such as Catholic Charities serve low-income families every day who face the insanity of trying to make ends meet when no part of the system will invest quite enough in them. Imagine nothing ever being quite enough to do right for your children, no matter how committed you are, no matter how hard you’re prepared to work, no matter how much you love them. Lifting the cap on these kids will help to ease the burden of that insanity, even just a bit.
An extra $100 to a low-income family (and that's what we're talking about) is the difference between feeding themselves and another demoralizing trip to a food pantry, or, when the food pantry visits run out for the month, which they do, just being hungry. It is school supplies or a warm enough coat for the winter, or maybe even just some Tylenol to ease aches and pains, as we have heard mothers tell us time and again.
In policy school, we learned two basic metrics to evaluate a law: does it work and does it do harm?
The Cap on Kids doesn’t work, and it harms children.
The Cap was intended to disincentivize families having additional children while on public assistance. The data do not support either that public assistance creates an incentive to have more kids, or that suppressing public assistance changes a woman’s reproductive behavior. Families receiving public assistance have kids at roughly the same rate of those who don’t. But there are reams of data to support that not having enough money to make ends meet hurts a child – that a child’s performance in school, his or her social-emotional development, likely overall health outcomes, and even future earnings are impacted.
Meanwhile, by leaving the Cap in place, we seek to suppress a family’s ability to self-determine. When we as the Commonwealth tell a second or third child they don’t exist in an attempt to use access to basic human needs as a method to control families, to dictate family aspirations, we are on dangerous moral ground. Would anyone agree, for example, with using a mortgage tax credit to limit middle class family size? That seems unlikely.
According to the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Massachusetts is one of only 17 states that have a Cap on Kids or similar policy. The organization reports that most states never had a Cap on Kids and seven states have repealed their Cap because they recognized it was a failed policy.
The Cap on Kids doesn’t work, and it does damage to families and communities. In addition, it is immoral. How does it still stand? The legislature should act on behalf of those families and take this opportunity to lift the cap on kids.
Tiziana Dearing is a professor at Boston College School of Social Work and the former president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.