Since 1992, the height of hysteria over the racist “welfare queen” myth, New Jersey has refused to give poor parents an increase in welfare benefits for any new children they have. The policy effectively penalizes them for growing their families — even though family who has more children before enrolling gets more benefits to cover the additional children.
Last month, state lawmakers sent Gov. Chris Christie (R) a bill that would repeal the welfare family cap, one of many policies around the country that were explicitly implemented in the 1990s as an attempt to curb the families of low-income women, particularly women of color. But Christie refused to sign it, saying in his veto message that getting rid of the cap would be unfair to families who don’t need cash assistance.
Before welfare was reformed in the 90s, states gave families an increase in benefits when they had new children so as to help parents cover the extra expenses. But a racist myth that promiscuous single black mothers were abusing welfare and having more children to get more benefits took hold. Lawmakers responded by trying to punish these “welfare queens” for reproducing.
Since New Jersey implemented its policy, more than 20,000 children have been denied extra benefits, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP). The cap means that a single mother in the state who is getting the maximum $322 benefit for a family of two would get no increase when she has a second child, keeping it from rising to the $424 maximum benefit for a three-person family, an effective 24 percent cut.
In Christie’s veto, he argued that the cap serves to “equalize treatment” of recipients of the state’s welfare system “and other residents of the State who do not automatically receive higher incomes following the birth of a child.” He also noted that a family with one working parent can get an exception to the family cap, which he said “appropriately balances the purpose of the family cap with the larger purpose of the [welfare] program to end dependency on public assistance.” He did not explain what, in his mind, the purpose of the family cap is.
And research has found that they don’t serve much purpose other than increasing hardship for already poor families. They don’t have an impact on recipients’ family size — and parents who are enrolled in public benefits have the same size families as those who aren’t anyway. But the caps do serve to increase poverty.
As he issued his veto of the family cap bill, Christie also vetoed another effort aimed at helping families enrolled in welfare. That bill would have increased the monthly amount that beneficiaries receive, a figure that hasn’t been changed in 30 years. That means, according to NJPP, that welfare assistance is now worth less than half of what it was in 1987. The maximum level of $424 a month for a family of three still only gets that family a quarter of the way toward living at the poverty level.
In vetoing the benefits increase, Christie cited “substantial costs” and argued that it didn’t take into account the other public programs, such as food stamps, housing assistance, and Medicaid, that low-income residents can enroll in. Yet none all of those programs give assistance for targeted needs; none give recipients cash to cover any expenses, such as diapers or bus fare, that might arise. The bill would have cost $14.2 million in the coming fiscal year, $27.1 million in the year after, and $38.6 million in the third.
NJPP argues that the reduction in welfare assistance is “a major cause of deep child poverty” in the state, which has increased 25 percent during the recovery period since the end of the recession. There are also about 80,000 more children living below the poverty line. Yet 82 percent of the state’s poor children don’t receive welfare assistance.