Family Cap Urged on Welfare Reform

By David Kopel

Palisade Tribune. January 19, 1997.

Starting next year, Colorado will have the opportunity to build a dramatically new welfare system -- one that serves as a safety net, rather than a trap. Unfortunately, Colorado's political leadership, both Democratic and Republican, is failing to push for one of the most important components of welfare reform: the "family cap."

A proven success in New Jersey, the family cap is based on personal responsibility: If you aren't capable of supporting your children, don't have more. Under the family cap, a person who is already on welfare, and who then has additional children, does not get extra cash for having the additional children. The new children are still fully eligible for Medicaid and the family gets additional food stamps for them. The adults, however, do not receive extra cash.

Welfare benefits, of course, are paid with tax dollars that are taken from working families. When these working families have more children, the working parents do not get a raise from their employers. So why should an adult who isn't working get more money for having another child?

In New Jersey, the family cap took effect in August 1993, after the federal government granted permission. As a result of the 1996 federal welfare reform bill, all states can enact family caps if they choose. But in Colorado, the leading Republican welfare bills (sponsored by House Speaker Chuck Berry and Senator Mike Coffman) do not currently include a family cap. Only Speaker Berry appears open to further examination of the family cap.

Before New Jersey enacted the family cap, opponents claimed that the cap would have no effect. They asserted that the cap would have no effect. They asserted that people on welfare were so different from everybody else that they would not react to the economic and moral signal created by the family cap. The opponents were wrong.

Overall, the birthrate for women on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) declined ten percent. Among women of childbearing age (15-45 years old), whose youngest child was at least ten months old and who had been on AFDC for at least a year, the result was even more dramatic -- an 18 percent decline.

As Dr. Rudy Myers of the New Jersey Department of Human Services explained, the economic impact of the family cap was not the most important component. The family cap just denied a $44-per-month cash benefits increase -- only four percent of the average welfare benefit.

The more important effect of the cap was its moral message: The government will not subsidize irresponsible behavior. Of course, everyone in New Jersey is still free to have as many children as they want, but not with a public cash bonus for having children at the wrong time in one's life.

A good welfare system should be compassionate. A compassionate program helps people through temporary times of crisis and encourages people to become self-sufficient in the long run. Encouraging people to engage in behaviors which harm themselves and others is, in contrast, not compassionate.

A system that tells a mother with two small children on welfare, "Go ahead, have more children, and we'll give you more money," is not doing the right thing for the mother or for her small children. Everyone in the family would be better off if the mother postponed further childbearing until she could support all of her children.

Welfare payments should not be given to teenage mothers who have never worked and have never been married. Teenage mothers do not get pregnant so that they can collect welfare benefits, but the availability of welfare makes possible that mother's decision to ignore birth control and to not let the baby be adopted by a couple who could provide better care.

Rather than providing direct cash benefits to the teenager, the money that would have been spent on welfare should be given to homes for unwed mothers and other charities that help unwed mothers.

In the last 15 years, a mountain of social science research has demonstrated the problems suffered by illegitimate children. No amount of social services can compensate for the absence of a father in a young child's life. Thus, the most important and most compassionate welfare reforms are those that reduce illegitimacy.

David Kopel is the Research Director for the Independence Institute.

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