Senior Policy Analyst
Massachusetts is the latest state to repeal the “family cap,” a policy rooted in racist stereotypes that denies additional assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program for children who are conceived and born to parents already enrolled in TANF. The 13 states where this policy remains in effect should also repeal it, especially given the National Academy of Sciences’ recent findings of how important adequate family income is for the healthy growth and development of children.
Over the years, state and national lawmakers have pushed for family caps. In the mid-1990s, some states sought waivers to federal rules to implement them, and House Republicans included the family cap concept in their 1994 Contract With America. For both groups, it was an attempt to disincentivize women who were receiving assistance from having more children, an idea often rooted in rhetoric and sentiments that stereotyped Black women and other women of color as lazy and irresponsible women who were having children to collect additional benefits.
Twenty-two states adopted family cap policies, mostly in the 1990s, and have denied benefits to hundreds of thousands of children since. Before repealing their laws, California deprived 130,000 children of financial assistance; New Jersey, 20,000 children; and Massachusetts, 8,700.
In at least two states, family cap policies were likelier to affect families of color than other families. California’s Department of Social Services found that families of color made up more than three-quarters of affected cases, while Minnesota’s Department of Human Services found that families of color made up 70 percent of those affected.
In a state with a family cap policy, a family that receives TANF strains its budget when it adds a child but its financial assistance remains unchanged. Consider what happened in Massachusetts under its old law: a single parent with one child on TANF could receive a maximum of $478 a month, and a single parent of two could receive $578. But, if the second child was born while the family was on TANF, the family could not receive the additional $100 a month — about the cost of diapers and wipes for a month.
Unsurprisingly, family cap policies don’t affect birthrates, research indicates, because there’s little evidence that women of any race have children solely for a marginal increase to their TANF benefits.
Since the early 2000s, a number of states have repealed their family cap policies, including New Jersey, California, and Minnesota. But these policies remain on the books in 13 states, many of which have TANF programs that are among the nation’s most limited and also have historically limited women of color’s access to direct financial assistance.
Though rather meager, TANF financial assistance is critical. While other programs like SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid help families meet their nutritional and health care needs, cash assistance helps families afford diapers, wipes, car seats, and the like. Additionally, having the resources to care for the needs of children has long-term significance, the National Academy of Sciences concluded. Increasing the cash income of families with young children improves future outcomes like graduation rates and earnings in adulthood.
It’s past time for states to repeal these policies, both so that families have the resources they need to adequately provide for their children and support their futures, and to disassociate from the policies’ racist legacy and history.