Advocates seek repeal of ‘family cap’ on welfare benefits

Associated Press
Published: 5/21/2017 10:23:52 PM

BOSTON — Jessica Frazier’s second child was a “family cap” baby, meaning that under Massachusetts rules, the single mother from Boston could not receive an increase in welfare benefits to help care for her now 7 month-old son.

The rule, established as part of a 1995 welfare reform law, was meant to discourage parents on welfare from conceiving additional children. It states that children who are born after a family begins receiving benefits are not eligible for the additional $100 per child stipend and clothing allowance from the state program called Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Activists seeking to overturn the policy say it only serves to punish children while falling far short of its objective to keep more kids from being born into poverty.

Frazier, who also has a 2-year-old daughter, said she must get by on less than $500 in monthly benefits. Even with child support from the children’s father, she struggles to afford diapers and other basic necessities, or fill her car with gasoline to get to job interviews.

“Normal things that people don’t think (are) what I have to think of on a daily basis,” said Frazier.

The Legislature’s Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities are considering a bill that would abolish the cap, a move that supporters say could help as many as 9,000 children.

Naomi Meyer, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, told the panel at a hearing Tuesday that the state treats those children as if they don’t exist. The result is parents forced to make difficult choices that affect the entire family.

“There is no family that chooses to take care of one child and not the other child,” said Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat who is one of the sponsors of the bill.

Massachusetts is among 17 states with a family cap still in place, according to an advocacy coalition called the Campaign to Lift the Cap on Kids.

Fiscal constraints could play into any decisions the Legislature makes on the issue. Decker estimated that eliminating the cap would result in up to $13 million in added welfare costs for the state each year.

The ranking Republicans on the committee, Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, of Taunton, and Sen. Donald Humason, of Westfield, did not return calls seeking comment on the legislation.

With state tax collections coming in below forecast in recent months, there appears little room in the state budget for new discretionary spending. But advocates framing the issue as one of conscience are imploring the state to find the necessary resources.

Under the rule, even children born to parents not on welfare can be denied benefits if the mother had recently received benefits.

Rachel Mulroy said she was on and off welfare and in an abusive relationship during a period from 2006 to 2012. Her second daughter was born while she was not receiving benefits, but was still subject to the cap.

“The rule was created under the assumption that women were getting pregnant to have more children to get welfare,” said the New Bedford woman, who has since earned a college degree and works as a community activist. “I didn’t have her because I wanted to get some extra money.”

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