Repealing Welfare Family Cap Laws a Common Goal for Some Pro- and Anti-Choice Groups


When welfare reform was signed into law by President Clinton 17 years ago this August, it freed states to implement most public benefits programs however they saw fit. As a result, many states chose to enforce family caps on welfare recipients—policies that restrict the amount of cash assistance that a family on welfare can receive if they have more children. Such laws not only exacerbate economic barriers for struggling families, but they also have deeply problematic reproductive justice implications: These laws penalize the poor for having children—something families of means would never face.

The reproductive justice implications of these policies have long been clear to advocates for the poor, and since the 1990s, the number of states with such laws has decreased. But efforts to repeal this relic of welfare reform have not just been a result of pro-choice advocacy. They have garnered deep support among many religious and social justice groups, and in some instances have been a point of common ground between the pro-choice and anti-choice camps.

In Minnesota, for example, “pro-life” and pro-choice groups formed a coalition to repeal their state’s family cap law earlier this year. In a press release, Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life Executive Director Scott Fischbach said, “The Family Cap has created undue economic pressure on poor families. It is time for the Minnesota Legislature to repeal this failed policy.”

Among the 15 states that still have a family cap in place is the blue state of California. Current California law prohibits CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids, a welfare cash assistance program) from aiding a child who is born into a family that has been receiving aid for ten or more continuous months.

A bill currently under consideration, AB 271, would repeal California’s family cap. Specifically, AB 271 would “prohibit the denial of aid or an increase in the maximum aid payment for a child born into the family of a CalWORKs recipient, and would not entitle increased benefit payments for months prior to January 1, 2014. This bill would prohibit the conditioning of eligibility for CalWORKs aid based on an applicant’s or recipient’s disclosure of information about being a victim of rape, incest, or contraception failure, as specified.”

Not all “pro-life” groups in the state are on board, however—even though the birth rate of CalWORKs recipients has been found to be consistent with that of the state’s general population. While the California Catholic Conference does support AB 271, California Right to Life told RH Reality Check this week that it would not support AB 271. “This is not a bill we support,” Camille Giglio, the group’s director, said. “While we have sympathy for a woman who keeps a baby even in tough circumstances, a bill like this is just a way for agencies to be financed off of the problems that women face.”

Yet the effects of family cap laws on poor women and families are very real. According to a study by the Urban Institute, the family cap policy increases the poverty rate of mothers by 12.5 percent and increases the deep poverty rate of children by 13.1 percent. According to the background provided in AB 271:

While the short-term costs of eliminating the [family cap] rule are significant, more broadly, the long-term effects of its repeal could impact the projected lifetime physical, mental, and social costs related to children raised in poverty and the long-term economic and societal effects linked to this policy.

Giglio said she feels the bill is not wise given California’s fiscal situation. While California has over the past few years faced a deeply troubling fiscal situation, the state has slowly begun to crawl out of the mess. In June, The Economist reported that California will have a $4.6 billion surplus in the coming year. A year after the family cap is repealed, the estimated cost increase would be just $11 million to the state, but would provide each family on welfare an average of $122 more in their CalWORKs allocation—not a lot, but enough to prevent each family from slipping deeper into poverty.

Overall, there is a broad coalition of organizations in California working to pass AB 271, including anti-poverty, pro-choice, and religious groups. “We have support from the Catholic community and we’re looking for more support among the ‘pro-life’ community,” said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “The fact that the state would have a policy that interferes with the reproductive decision-making of women solely because they’re poor is not acceptable and very problematic.”

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  • Valde

    “While we have sympathy for a woman who keeps a baby even in tough
    circumstances, a bill like this is just a way for agencies to be
    financed off of the problems that women face.”

    Apparently they don’t have any sympathy for the baby. But hey, it’s born now , so what does it matter?

    • Arekushieru

      More specifically, it means that THEIR agencies can’t be financed off of the problems that women face. Meaning, adoption. After all, if impoverished families can receive financial help for longer periods of time they MAY not decide to relinquish children for adoption (and, yet, it is the CPCs, THEMSELVES, that claim to want to help women and their children. It’s not ‘help’ by any stretch of the imagination, if they are refusing to do anything to keep children with the families that want them. DERP). Finally, this PROVES that Pro-‘Life’ really is NOT anti-abortion. Because, y’know what this MIGHT do, INCREASE the abortion rates. It’s sad that antis are SO hypocritical.

      • Valde

        Yes, and one does wonder how much money the adoption lobby has happily ‘gifted’ these politicians with ;)

    • Phedra Posch

      Haven’t these women ever heard of birth control?

      • Arekushieru

        Um, how ignorant do you have to be to think that someone on welfare, WITH A WELFARE CAP, would have enough money to buy birth control, when welfare only provides them with the bare minimum to cover the BASIC necessities? Besides, MOST women who have had an abortion used some form of birth control. However, SOME women are allergic to latex. SOME women cannot afford even the cheapest form of contraception. SOME women find hormonal contraception ineffective. Etc… etc…. Your ignorance really astounds… no… wait… you’re an anti… so… no… it doesn’t.

        • Phedra Posch

          They could refrain from having sex, especially knowing that they cannot afford another child. There is such a think as being responsible for your own actions and your own welfare.

          Where did you get your statistics that MOST women who have had an abortion use birth control? I’d be very careful about who you call ignorant because certainly is showing.

          • Amanda Kazarian

            What about married couples? They can end up poor too. Why do you have a say in when other people can have sex?

          • Phedra Posch

            If you are living on the tax payer’s dollar, it is your responsibility to NOT have children that you cannot afford. Being married has nothing to do with it.

          • Amanda Kazarian

            I hope you never make mistakes at other peoples expense then. All methods of birth control can fail.

          • Phedra Posch

            Abstinence never fails.

          • Amanda Kazarian

            Then stay abstinent unless you want a baby. The rest of us will live our lives our way.

          • Arekushieru

            Wrong. While abstinence may not fail with perfect use, unlike other forms of birth control, that advantage is SEVERELY diminished when one considers that, IN PRACTICE, abstinence fails FAR more often than all other forms of birth control. Oops.

          • Arekushieru

            We are ALL living on the taxpayer’s dollar. Use the roads? You are living on the taxpayer’s dollar. Went to school? Living on the taxpayer’s dollar. Etc… etc…. No, placing the responsibility on the VICTIM is never the right thing to do. It’s like blaming women for having a uterus, so you can deny them the right to bodily autonomy that everyone else has. SICK. And more bigotry, of course.

          • Phedra Posch

            I happen to BE a tax payer and I don’t live off the taxpayer dollars. I pay my fair share. This discussion is about people who have been on welfare for 10 or more months and want welfare for having another child. My point is, if you cannot afford to have more children, you should not have more, then expect the tax payer to pay for them. Simple as that. There is no bigotry involved, just common sense.

          • Arekushieru

            No, YOU are expecting a poor, impoverished couple to refrain from sex when you would not have to expect the same of a wealthy couple. Please, for once, remember what you POST.

            Secondly, whether or not you are a taxpayer, you are still living off of taxpayer’s dollars. So, I’m keeping on topic. Why aren’t you?

          • Arekushieru

            Seriously? No, your ignorance is showing. Because that is a commonly held stat among BOTH the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life camps. SO sorry. Maybe, next time, you should ask for the stats before out and out claiming someone is ignorant? (Btw, I never claimed you were ignorant based on unproven stats, I claimed you were ignorant because of the categorical statements you made.)

            And, of course, we have another anti who also happens to be classist. SO not surprising. Refraining from sex is not something that you would typically expect of the wealthy, now, would you? So, yup, discrimination against the poor, just because they’re poor. Sad.

            Also, you don’t care that you may have just put a woman who is likely ALREADY more vulnerable to violence, at even GREATER danger. Because, of course, no one who is abused by their domestic partner has ever been threatened with sexual violence as a part of that abuse, now, have they?

          • Arekushieru

            There is such a thing as being held EQUALLY responsible for your own actions and welfare, the same way that everyone ELSE is held responsible. But, no, you just want poor people to be held to a higher standard simply because they’re poor. And antis wonder why we call them bigots (yes, I am referring to a post I saw on another board that you commented on. Feel free to look it up, and shake your head at it, too!)?

  • colleen2

    “But efforts to repeal this relic of welfare reform have not just been a result of pro-choice advocacy.”

    Welfare deformation was a coup on low income women by the religious right, Republicans and ‘centrist’ Democrats. I certainly am not buying a spin that pretends welfare deformation was anything but an unmitigated disaster for low income women and their children. It’s worked out quite well for irresponsible fathers because the Republicans (aided by ‘centrist’ Democrats) have cut funding for child support enforcement. It was this abomination that allowed the religious right direct funding for obscenities such as Crisis Pregnancy Centers (which force us to pay people you appear to think we should find “common ground” with to LIE to their victims which are usually pregnant women.)

    I’m opposed to the notion of telling women the state will support their children. It’s just not true. The state has consistently failed in this role . Indeed, the state has consistently failed in it’s duty to care for and protect children, even foster children and orphans and the overwhelming majority of absentee fathers do not support their children. Please stop aiding the religious right in their efforts to make the lives of poor women immeasurably worse by pretending that you can support a bunch of children minimum with wage jobs and some help from the New Improved Welfare system. you can’t.
    Dear GOD stop with the ‘common ground’ spin. It’s particularly annoying when the groups remain mysterious and unnamed and the spin ignores issues like overpopulation and reality as this one does. I don’t want ‘common ground’ with ‘feminists’ like Kirsten Day.

  • Stadskind

    As I am not an American and quite content to be that way, I will not presume to speak for the American public. However, the problem of welfare and of abortion is not unique to the United States, so I will keep my comments close to home.

    Child grants often create an incentive for young women as young as fourteen or fifteen to have children, often multiple children. This is not even always their choice as a method of dealing with poverty, but pressure may also come from their families or sexual partners to pro-create and thus engage in unsafe sexual practices, which not only leaves them with the chance of getting pregnant, but also of getting sexually transmitted infections. Add to this, that young teens often have sugar daddies and, well, you have a recipe for disaster. While being cognizant of human cost, I do not feel that it is so unreasonable to create family limits to welfare. Perhaps not for one child, or two, but surely three seems to be a reasonable number?

    Of course all forms of birth control may fail, but let’s be honest, the majority of women who rely on child grants, didn’t use birth control in the first place. I am not presuming to tell married couples that they can’t engage in sex because they are poor, but, seeing as birth control is available free of charge at the local clinics, it is socially irresponsible to have four or five or six children when you know that you cannot afford them. Let’s face the realities that statistics indicate overwhelmingly that women who are educated (which often correlates with higher social status) are less likely to have children at an early age and generally have a significantly lower number of children. I am not suggesting in any way that you should have to abort a child because the state does not wish to support it. However, I also do not see why, as a taxpayer, I should fund other people’s decisions to have large families (or to abuse the system through child grants) while considerations such as “will I able to give my child a quality education” should prevent me from making the same choice if I wanted a large family.

    The child should not be punished for the choices their parents make. But perhaps cash welfare pay-outs are not the best way of achieving a fair and equitable solution that will actually benefit the children. By providing certain services free of charge, up to a certain cap, for example water, electricity, education and health care, you can restrict the cash welfare incentive while still caring for the child – and quite possibly ensuring that the money doesn’t go to feeding some parents’ alcohol and drug addiction. A reasonable family cap can then take care of other necessities such as food, clothing and rent. Subsidized housing can even further decrease the need for cash welfare, as can food stamps, which can be redeemed at most reputable grocery stores (in fact, I have seen advertisements in the shops that I frequent myself which indicates that they accept food stamps).

    And oh, before you insist that I am “anti” and therefore ignorant, I happen to be pro-choice.