California Should Eliminate the Maximum Family Grant; Evidence Shows Outdated Policy Causes Lasting Harm

In 1994, before federal welfare reform imposed lifetime limits and stronger work requirements, California adopted its Maximum Family Grant (MFG) policy, also known as a “family cap,” which denies benefits to babies conceived and born while their families are receiving cash assistance. The policy was never implemented under the pre-reform Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) Program because the state was not approved for a federal waiver. However, welfare reform made the decision a state rather than federal one, paving the way for the policy to be implemented. So in 1997, when I was acting assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I was informed by Eloise Anderson, director of the California Department of Social Services, that the state was withdrawing its waiver request and would implement the policy under the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant.

But after 20 years, the evidence is in: these family cap policies don’t work. Worse, they can cause lifelong damage to children’s learning and development. A growing body of research shows that infancy is a critical period for children’s development, with implications for lifelong physical and emotional well-being. Experiences during the infant and toddler years shape the architecture of the brain—including cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional capacities—at a phenomenal rate and lay the foundation for future growth and learning. Today, we now know far more than before about the importance of the first years of life—and the cumulative threat to the long-term well-being of babies who face multiple risk factors, such as those who are eligible for TANF. Research suggests that, rather than cutting benefits to babies, states should redesign TANF programs to meet the developmental needs of infants in TANF families, as recommended in the recent CLASP paper, TANF and the First Year of Life: Making a Difference at a Pivotal Moment.

The evidence is in on another point too.  Family cap policies don’t achieve their intended purpose of deterring childbearing among women and girls who are poor. Proponents hypothesized that welfare recipients might intentionally conceive a child to receive an increased benefit, to become exempt from mandatory work requirements or activities, or to remain eligible for the program. But studies of family cap policies have found no evidence of such effects. There is little evidence of any reduction in birth rates among women receiving TANF benefits when compared to non-TANF recipients in states with such policies. Instead, the main effect of family caps is to increase poverty among families with young children. One study found that the family cap significantly increases deep poverty (income less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level) among single mothers and their children.

It’s time for California to eliminate its maximum family grant policy. As the evidence against these policies accumulates, six other states have repealed their family cap policies since 2002, most recently Minnesota in 2013. As one of only 16 states that still have such policies, California accounts for more than half of the approximately 61,000 families nationwide that had their benefits reduced in 2013 due to a family cap policy—families that are highly likely to have infants or young children. Nationally, families affected by the benefit cap have received an average of 20 percent less in cash assistance than they would have otherwise received.

Family cap policies take money away from the most vulnerable families, with lasting consequences for both these families and society as a whole.  Children who are born into families experiencing poverty are far more likely than other children to spend more than half of their childhood in poverty, and to have worse outcomes as adults. In California, without the Maximum Family Grant rule, most affected households would receive an additional $128 per month in assistance for a newborn child—not enough to meet all of an infant’s basic needs but enough to pay for diapers and wipes.  Lifting the family cap would mitigate the financial burdens associated with deep poverty.

Earlier this year, legislation to repeal the Maximum Family Grant cleared the California Senate with bi-partisan support. As early as January, it will be eligible for a vote in the Assembly, where it received bi-partisan votes at committee hearings. California Governor Jerry Brown hasn’t taken a position on the policy but has indicated his desire to discuss the repeal in budget negotiations rather than be sent the bill for signature in 2016.  I urge Governor Brown to include funding to repeal this harmful and outdated provision in his forthcoming budget proposal. The evidence is in, and the family cap should be out.