Limiting Welfare Benefits for Illegitimate Children: The Family Cap

One of the most controversial welfare reform proposals under consideration would limit the amount of cash assistance mothers on welfare would receive if they bear additional illegitimate children. But in this case it's not just a theory, there is some practical experience to help evaluate the idea. The state of New Jersey passed a family cap law in 1992, taking effect in August 1993. No longer does a mother on welfare receive additional welfare money for bearing more children.

Proponents of the measure – known as the "family cap" – believe it would discourage low-income women on welfare from bearing additional children, since they would receive no additional income after doing so. Liberal opponents of the cap argue that such a provision would unfairly harm the children of those mothers. Conservative opponents contend that limiting the cash assistance would result in more abortions.

The initial returns from the New Jersey family cap law suggested that the law has been a moderate success; the number of children born to low-income women out-of-wedlock has declined since the law's enactment, and abortions have not risen.

According to a study by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, using data from New Jersey's Human Services Department: "In the year before the cap, the average monthly number of births was 1,331; in the 16 months after the cap went into effect, average monthly births among AFDC mothers fell to 1,197. The cap appears to have caused an average decrease of 134 births per month, or 10%."

Does the inability to receive additional money for having more children lead to more abortions? Apparently not. According to Rector: 'The monthly abortion rate per 1,000 AFDC mothers was 8.1 in the 12 months before enactment of the cap, but fell to 8.08 per month after the cap went into effect. The difference between the pre- and post-cap abortion rate is extremely small and not statistically significant."

Does the inability to receive additional money for having more children harm the mother or the children? The answer is neither very much. While the program does limit the government-provided cash the mother can receive, she still receives an increase in food stamps and Medicaid coverage. New Jersey's family cap only eliminates the cash reward for having more children – $44 per month, which amounts to about 4% of a mother's total welfare benefits.

To put the conclusion in perspective, for a 4% reduction in benefits, New Jersey seems to have achieved a 10% reduction in illegitimate births with no increase in abortions.

Additional experience under the law will likely strengthen these conclusions. But it will not quell the heated political debate in Washington. That debate focuses on whether the national government should enact a family cap, or whether the decision should be left to the states.

Most liberals, of course, oppose any such restrictions from the state or federal governments. Some Republicans also oppose relying on the federal government to impose the family caps. They want an unrestricted welfare reform bill that would block grant welfare money to the states and let them decide what restrictions, if any, they want to impose.

Many conservative Republicans, by contrast, believe that the Congress ought to be making a moral statement about families, welfare reform, and the bearing of children out of wedlock. In most policy matters, the conservative Republicans believe states should be given more, not less, responsibility. In this case, however, some conservative Republicans are convinced that they cannot trust the state governments to impose the family caps, which could result in a state-based welfare reform proposal that continues to reward irresponsible behavior.

For example, Rector supports a national family cap policy. "A 'reform' of the federal welfare system which fails to send a clear moral signal, which remains agnostic on the question of illegitimacy, and which simply allows states to 'do their own thing' with federal taxpayers' funds – or do nothing – would be a disaster."

But would it be a disaster? Does the federal government have any greater interest or concern about reducing illegitimacy than the states? In almost any other legislative context, Rector's reservations about returning decision-making authority to the states could be mistaken for the fulminations of a liberal Democrat.

Ironically, it is a state welfare program – New Jersey's – not a federal program that draws such high praise from Rector.

While the desire to make a national statement on the need for responsible sexual behavior is understandable, letting the states decide whether to impose a family cap would be the approach most consistent with the conservative revolution in Washington. If the cap fits, they'll wear it.