Beyond the ‘Welfare Queen’: New Jersey, Massachusetts Move to Repeal TANF Family Caps

By Darrel Thompson

“She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps; Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent, deceased veteran husbands—as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Ronald Reagan said that while campaigning for president in 1976, giving rise to the “welfare queen” caricature inspired by Linda Taylor and thrust onto Black women receiving public assistance. The myth of millions of shiftless, unmarried, deviant, government-hustling Black women became one of the driving forces behind policies that limited access to welfare benefits, such as the “family cap.”

In the early 1990s, the federal government allowed states to request waivers to reshape welfare policies, including imposing family caps on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) subsidies. This allowed states to deny additional benefits for babies born to families already receiving assistance, and continued under AFDC’s replacement: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). While nearly half of all states initially adopted family caps, there has been a trend toward repealing them.

In 2016, California became the seventh state to remove the cap following extensive advocacy from a broad-based coalition of anti-poverty, reproductive justice, and faith-based organizations. Their campaign was premised in part on compelling evidence showing that depriving families of an extra $130 per month does not lower birth rates.

Now New Jersey and Massachusetts are on the verge of repealing their family caps.  

In 1992, New Jersey was the first state in the nation to enact family caps. The monthly grant for a recipient and two children is now $424. If subject to the TANF family cap, that family is only eligible for $321—just 19 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). However, the state recently passed a budget that provides funding to repeal the cap. The budget would also increase TANF benefits by 10 percent—the first increase in nearly three decades. Such improvements could mitigate the need for a parent to skip diaper changes or pull their children for two miles in a red wagon instead of taking the bus to the grocery store.

In Massachusetts, a TANF recipient with two children is eligible for a grant of $578 monthly. If one child is excluded under the cap, the recipient receives just $478 monthly—28 percent of FPL. Moreover, the recipient loses an annual $300 clothing allowance.

Last month, both chambers of the Massachusetts legislature voted to repeal the family cap effective January 1, 2019. However, Republican Governor Charlie Baker tried to amend the family cap repeal provision. He pledged to lift the cap only if the legislature agreed to count a severely disabled adult’s Supplemental Security Income benefits as available to their entire family when determining eligibility for cash assistance. The Massachusetts House and Senate responded by overriding his amendment.

Baker’s fight with the legislature is ongoing. With the legislative session ending, Baker could veto the bill without being challenged. If the governor does that, legislators have signaled they will pass a clean bill to lift the family cap when they reconvene in January.

Fifteen states still have family caps despite evidence indicating children’s long-term health, learning, and development are tied to their experiences during infancy. Now is the time for states to follow California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts’ example and eliminate this harmful policy—rejecting racist, sexist beliefs about women’s reproductive and economic decisions.