Repealing TANF’s ‘Family Cap’ Makes Moral and Economic Sense

castro200x150These are prepared remarks, on S-1854, set to be delivered to the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee this afternoon.

Under current law, New Jersey denies basic assistance to children who, through no fault of their own, are born while their mothers are on TANF (also known as Work First NJ). This cap, which has already denied assistance to over 20,000 babies since its inception, needs to be repealed, and New Jersey Policy Perspective strongly supports this bill to do just that.

Recent national research has shown that these policies – called family caps – do not affect parental choices as intended but instead penalize the babies, who are denied cash assistance, and the families, which are driven deeper into poverty. This is a major problem because we know that poverty impairs the cognitive development of children, which affects their performance in school, their health and their job prospects when they become adults. This is a moral issue but it is also an economic concern because it is the public that must pay for the many services these children will need later in life.

The family cap is particularly cruel because the TANF cash benefit is already so low that no family can survive on it thereby requiring emergency assistance. The regular grant of $424 a month for a family of three is just 25 percent of the federal poverty level and has not been increased in nearly three decades. That same family receives only $321 a month if one of the children is subject to the family cap, reducing their grant by 24 percent. Those children must also live with the stigma of knowing that the entire family must suffer because of them.

One of the original goals of the family cap was to promote individual responsibility, but TANF already includes many of these requirements, such as that all able-bodied parents must participate in work activities for 35 hours; termination from TANF for failure to comply with program rules; parents must start work activities as soon as a child is 12 weeks old; and a five-year lifetime limit on TANF assistance.

Many of these TANF rules are already excessive and greatly reduce the amount of time a parent has to bond with her infant at a critical time in the child’s development. New Jersey’s additional requirement that these same children be denied any cash assistance should be disturbing to all of us.

The argument that the family cap is needed because poor women have too many children also does not hold water. In fact, in New Jersey the average number of children living at home for women below the poverty level is only one (1.1).

This also raises a much bigger issue: what business does the state of New Jersey have in coercing women into having a certain number of children, just because those women happen to be poor? No other program in New Jersey that assists the poor, like SNAP and Medicaid, denies help to an infant based on when the mother was receiving assistance.

Even if the state has a legitimate interest in reducing the birth rate of low-income women, that could be done in ways that are not coercive. For example, the state could make available family planning services on a voluntary basis to every mother on TANF. New Jersey could also take other actions that better inform these mothers regarding the birth control options available to them. Using this approach, the state can achieve its objectives without infringing on the rights of women and causing irreparable harm to their babies.