‘Our children are going to benefit from this’

Originally posted on Sentinel & Enterprise.

BOSTON —A group of advocates waited outside of the Senate Chamber as lawmakers met in formal session. Some sat on chairs and chatted with companions, while others walked back and forth in the hall, sometimes peeking through the door seam with expectant eyes.

One hour later, Deborah Harris of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, came out from the chamber. The advocates immediately clustered. After finding out about the result, the group burst into cheers. They waved a self-made banner and put on their blue caps, which were printed with a short caption in white, “We lifted the cap on kids.”

The controversial welfare family cap, which prevented families from receiving additional benefits if they have another child, was finally lifted after the sixth legislative vote to override Gov. Charlie Baker’s vetoes on April 25. Rep. Marjorie C. Decker, D-Cambridge, and Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, were the lead sponsors of the bill.

Brooke Karanovich, director of communications at the Department of Transitional Assistance, said that changing the policy will cost an additional $13 million annually, and means that family size will now recognize all children in a household and be more consistent with other benefits programs.

“This is a day that we can all say, we made a difference in people’s lives, and our children are going to benefit from this,” DiDomenico said.

The welfare family cap has had a long history. Between 1992 and 2003, this legislation was adopted in 24 states. It discouraged childbearing by welfare beneficiaries and reduced the amount of money distributed to families receiving basic needs cash grants, according to the center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law.

Harris has long supported lifting the cap. She wrote in her testimony that it hurts children born to very low-income mothers. It also hurts the child’s older sisters and brothers, because siblings excluded by the cap would face increased risks of homelessness and other hardships associated with extreme poverty, including cognitive, emotional, and physical health challenges, she said.

Many states such as California, Illinois and Minnesota have worked to repeal their cap on kids, and Massachusetts is the ninth state to do so.

Generally, welfare benefits in Massachusetts are based on family size. A family of three usually receives $593 per month as basic grants. However, if one of the families has a child excluded by the program, the amount reduces to $491.

Over the past two years, Baker vetoed the bill multiple times because he said his administration is already taking a comprehensive approach to welfare reform. The proposal, according to Jeff McCue, the commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, was one of the core economic assistance programs, and was designed to streamline and untangle the process while better supporting families in poverty.

Baker’s fiscal 2020 budget included $655 million in funding for the reforms to the Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The department implemented policy changes that simplify rules and partners with state agencies and communities to help the families. One of the key changes is to help the families receiving job placement and coaching.

The Baker administration hoped lawmakers would agree to his broader reforms “in order to create a more equitable and streamlined approach to the calculation of TAFDC benefits, while establishing the right set of incentives.”

But his proposal was not supported by the majority of legislators, except Rep. Colleen M. Garry, D-Dracut, the only member who supported Baker and voted against the override in the House.

Garry, who also represents Tyngsboro, told The Sun of Lowell that she felt it was important to stand by the governor. She also agreed with the idea to propose more reforms instead of completely lifting the welfare cap.

“There needs to be more reform made to the welfare proposal. Instead of just expanding it, we need to rein it in in some way. It’s not just finances that are important — it’s the culture,” she said.

The ActionNetwork is among many community organizations that did not share that opinion. As a coalition of more than 110 organizations that supported lifting the cap, the group referred to it as exacerbating child poverty and depriving the essentials to about 8,800 children.

The organization also charged that the cap was based on the false belief that women will have children just to get $100 per month, and it is a failed policy that harms children living in poverty.

Children’s HealthWatch is another nonpartisan organization pleased to see the cap lifted. This group connects pediatricians, public health researchers and experts committed to improving children’s health in the United States.

“From 2010 to 2016, we found that almost one third of the caregivers that we talked to and the emergency room at Boston Medical Center receiving are TAFDC subject to the family cap,” said Allison Bovell-Ammon, the deputy director of policy strategy. “We know from our empirical data that it [the policy] harms the health of children and it jeopardizes family’s resources that are needed to pay for things like food, which are critical for children in this early period of life.”

Bovell-Ammon said the repeal will have a positive effect on the health and well-being on children across the state.

Looking to the future, Bovell-Ammon said there are more positive changes to TAFDC to be made. Children’s HealthWatch also supports the Act to Reduce Deep Poverty Among Kids, which would set a floor for TAFDC benefits increasing TAFDC benefits by 10 percent per year until grants reach 50 percent of the federal poverty level. This would increase resources families need to make ends meet and in turn reduce family financial instability and improve health outcomes for young children and their families.

The cap lift is retroactive to Jan. 1. The state has until Sept. 1 to fully implement the policy. The change will affect approximately 6,400 TAFDC households.

“Lifting the cap on kids will make a critical difference in the lives of 8,700 of the lowest income children in Massachusetts,” said Harris. “With today’s vote, Massachusetts has affirmed the dignity and humanity of every child.”