The first time Rachel Mulroy had to turn to Massachusetts’s cash welfare program, known in the state as Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC), her first daughter was two-and-a-half months old and Mulroy was fleeing an abusive relationship. She had been relying on family for financial support. “At some point, people had their own bills that they had to pay and I still couldn’t find any work,” she told Truthout. So she enrolled in TAFDC. The aid money wasn’t much — just the “bare minimum” to cover her needs, she said — but it got her through until she found a job a few months later.
However, since Mulroy’s new job was only a seasonal minimum wage retail position with a fluctuating schedule, it wasn’t enough. The lack of steady financial resources pushed her back to her former partner, who said he would only support her if she got back together with him. She decided it was better for her daughter if she went back to him and avoided raising her in “extreme poverty.” About a year later she had her second daughter.
Yet the abuse only escalated and ended up worse than the first time around. Mulroy once again made the difficult decision to leave a violent situation, but knew she would need TAFDC’s support to get by. She didn’t want to “stay on the system” — she just needed something until she could get a job, she said.
That’s when she found out that while she would get benefits to cover her eldest daughter, she would get nothing for her youngest. Until today, Massachusetts was one of 14 states that still have so-called “family caps” in their cash welfare programs that deny any extra benefits for children born after their parents enroll in the program.
These caps were adopted by 22 states at the same time that Congress reformed the welfare program in the 1990s, turning it into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as it’s known today. The intention was to, in the words of congressional Republicans, “discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by … denying increased [benefits] for additional children while on welfare” — in other words, to limit the family sizes of the poor people who need the program to get by. Then-New Jersey State Assembly member Wayne Bryant, a huge fan of the policy, put it more bluntly: “What this [cap] does is give welfare recipients a choice. They either can have additional children and work to pay the added costs, or they can decide not to have any more children.” The idea stemmed straight out of the myth of the supposed “welfare queen” — a figment of the racist Republican imagination characterized as a poor, Black woman who refused to work and instead had children to milk government benefits.
Mulroy was horrified when she found out about her state’s cap. “It was like my youngest didn’t even exist,” she recalled. “It felt like we were getting left behind. It really did. And it really, really hurt.”
“I’m not trying to squeeze another $100 a month out of the state by having a baby,” she added. “I don’t want to have to rely on assistance at all.” But she needed some kind of help to be able to leave a dangerous domestic situation.
It was difficult for Mulroy to get by on reduced benefits. Both of her children were in diapers but she only had cash benefits to cover one of them. So she stretched the diapers, sometimes leaving her youngest unchanged when she woke in the night just to use fewer of them. Mulroy had a car, but it broke down and she couldn’t afford basic repairs, so she and her two daughters, a toddler and an infant, had to take the bus everywhere. Sometimes she only had bus fare for one direction, meaning she and her daughters had to walk home. On one such trip on foot, pushing a stroller and carrying a toddler on her hip with heavy snow falling, she encountered a police officer who was so alarmed by her traveling conditions that he insisted on giving them all a ride home.
Mulroy was eventually able to enroll in a local community college, where she graduated in two years. She went on to get her Bachelor of Science degree in anthropology. That allowed her to get steady work that paid well. Today she has a full-time job working in government.
But the experience of severe poverty, made more intense by stingy benefits, took a toll on her and her daughters. “It was just so much trauma from living in that scenario for all of us,” she said. “A lot of anger, guilt, a lot of crying over the course of many years.”
Massachusetts residents will soon be spared what Mulroy had to go through. The state legislature voted to repeal the state’s family cap in early April. Mulroy has advocated for the repeal and remembers the importance of that vote. “It felt like how you feel when the Patriots win the Super Bowl. Just minus the confetti,” she said.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker then vetoed the legislature’s repeal about a week later after stymying the legislature’s similar attempt to roll back the cap last year. But after the house overwhelmingly voted to override his veto on April 11 — 155 in favor and one against — the senate followed suit this morning, voting 37 to 3 to finally get rid of the family cap once and for all.
Massachusetts now joins a number of other states, including California, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Wyoming, that have repealed their family cap policies since the 1990s. However, 13 states besides Massachusetts still have family caps in place.
Since the policies were instated in the 1990s, there has been no evidence that family caps affect the family sizes of welfare recipients. In fact, their families look about the same as those who don’t receive government benefits. What the caps have been found to do is increase poverty.
And as Mulroy can attest, they take an emotional toll on families. “It’s like nobody sees you. It’s like you don’t exist,” she said. “It makes you feel very worthless.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that New Jersey got rid of its welfare family cap in its 2018 budget, rather than through legislative repeal.