Welfare's Once-Popular Cap on Kids Loses Favor in States

The policy was intended to discourage government dependence. It didn’t seem to work.

Parents walking with strollers and toddlers.
The welfare family cap may be an idea whose time has passed. Over the last quarter-century, about half the states have put this sort of limit on welfare benefits, which means women who have a certain number of children receive no additional dollars when they give birth to another one. But at least eight states have repealed the policy since 2002, including three in the past three years.

The 1996 federal welfare law allowed states to impose the cap on families. By that time, California and New Jersey were already doing it. Increasing the size of a mother’s welfare check for a new birth, it was thought, only encouraged women to have more children. “The impetus behind family caps was that if you give more money for larger families, it would encourage non-marital fertility and encourage dependence,” says Greg Acs, vice president of income benefits and policy at the Urban Institute.

If reduced family size was the plan, it didn’t work. Numerous studies have found that the cap has not led to any decrease in fertility or family size among recipients of cash welfare. Even in places where it looked like fertility had dropped, Acs says, it turned out that women simply didn’t bother reporting children to agencies when the kids wouldn’t count toward their benefits. 

“I grew up in poverty,” says Massachusetts state Rep. Marjorie Decker, sponsor of a family cap repeal that became law in April over Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto. “My family never got the memo that if you have more babies, you’ll get rich.”

Advocates argue that caps actually hurt children lower in the birth order by depriving them of support. The benefit for additional children is not especially generous. In Massachusetts, it’s $100 per month. That may cover the cost of diapers, but leaves hardly anything for food or clothing. In other states, the extra benefit is much lower. Still, for families living in deep poverty, any additional dollars are helpful. “Taking resources away from children when they’re born has never been a successful strategy,” Decker says. 

In Massachusetts, only one legislator in the House and one in the Senate voted against Decker’s bill. California and New Jersey have both lifted their caps in the past two years, joining several other states, including red states such as Oklahoma, Nebraska and Wyoming. Fifteen states still have caps on the books, but the momentum toward repeal could encourage more to lift them. “I believe this policy is in its final days,” says Jessica Bartholow, of the Western Center on Law & Poverty, “because it has proved to be a failed intervention.”

Alan Greenblatt is a Governing senior staff writer. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.