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Doing the Math on the Welfare 'Family Cap'

By Barbara Vobejda and Judith Havemann
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 30 1997; Page A01

Two-month-old Michael Myers-Evans has huge, dark eyes, just like his brother and two sisters. Like his siblings, he is poor, the child of a single, unemployed mother.

But in one very important way, Michael is different from the rest of his family, different from almost everyone else in his circumstances: He is not eligible for welfare.

Michael is one of the first generation of babies being born around the country under a controversial new policy known as the "family cap." Now in place in 19 states, the family cap denies additional benefits to children conceived and born while their mothers are receiving public assistance.

That means that Michael's mother, 25-year-old Nandora Myers, is now supporting four children on the same $650 monthly welfare payment she received when she had three children. And that basic calculus defies the history of federal welfare policy, which until now has always tied the level of benefits to the size of one's family.

"It's the children that are going to suffer," said Nandora Myers. But then, in a twist of incongruity, she adds that the policy makes some sense. "All these women having all these babies and not being able to take care of them is not right."

For years, social scientists and Washington lawmakers have waged an emotional debate over whether welfare benefits affect behavior – whether single women were having children knowing they could support them at taxpayer expense. Now, as an array of welfare changes takes hold, the family cap is the principal revision aimed at severing the link between money and babies.

It seeks to send a message to poor women that having more children will only increase hardship and deprivation – not bring extra cash. That message is intended to be so clear and harsh that it will reach into the most private sexual relationships, persuading women to stop having children they cannot support.

Conservatives have pushed hard to see the bitterly contested policy adopted in state capitals around the country, describing it as the centerpiece of their efforts to lower out-of-wedlock births. If it works, and welfare births decline, they would prove a critical point: New welfare policies can indeed alter human behavior.

But in Massachusetts, so far, the evidence is, at the very least, slow in coming. While a handful of other states are reporting ambiguous or conflicting results from the combination of the family cap and dozens of other policy changes occurring simultaneously, the rational calculation made by Massachusetts legislators – dock a welfare check and women will change their lives – has yet to prove true.

In this New England state, where The Washington Post is chronicling the impact of this historic reform, the family cap has had no discernible effect on the birth rates of welfare recipients.

Women have known that the cap would be going into effect for more than a year, so they had plenty of time to take precautions to avoid getting pregnant.

Nonetheless, in the first five months since the cap went into effect, 3,390 babies were born to the state's welfare mothers, slightly more than the 3,333 average for a comparable period the previous year. And that has happened as welfare caseloads have declined by about 12 percent, a trend that should have resulted in fewer welfare births.

Most of the women Post reporters spoke with said they knew about the cap, either through interviews with their caseworkers or as a result of the mass publicity surrounding the new policy. The message, they said, was clear: If they had another baby, it wouldn't put an additional $90 a month in their pockets – as the old policy did. State Rep. Anne Paulsen (D), a critic of the policy, said the new numbers indicate the cap is failing to meet the goal its supporters promised.

"The point made in passing it was that we would reduce the number of children born on public assistance," she said. "We haven't done that."

Throughout the debate over the family cap, liberals have argued that it punishes innocent children, and other groups have warned that it could encourage women to seek abortions.

Supporters have countered that the family cap merely removes a perverse incentive for welfare mothers to have more babies in order to get more money.

After all, if these women had jobs, conservatives argue, having another child wouldn't automatically produce a pay raise. That argument has caught on, transforming the family cap from a conservative cause to one that is gradually gaining wider support.

Now, with very preliminary data emerging from a few of the states with family caps, officials are eager to interpret apparent drops in welfare births in four states as a sign that the policy has worked.

The stakes are enormous. Many governors' political fortunes are riding on the success of the welfare reforms they have championed. And the financial incentives are equally potent: States that successfully drive down out-of-wedlock birth rates without increasing abortions can win as much as $25 million a year in an "illegitimacy bonus" created in the federal welfare law enacted last year. Officials already are scrambling to do everything they can to win the money, targeting efforts particularly at lowering births among welfare mothers.

Most states with family caps have not collected or released birth rates or have yet to begin denying benefits. In some states, including Nebraska and Arkansas, scientific studies using control groups that were evaluated by independent researchers with no stake in the outcome have found no difference in births between women who are covered by the cap and others who would continue receiving benefits.

But supporters of family cap policies say they see signs of success in several states.

Based on a few months' data, Virginia reports a 15 percent decline in welfare births, Arizona a drop of 6 percent and, in Mississippi, state officials report an astonishing 45 percent drop.

In New Jersey, where the family cap has been in effect since the fall of 1993, officials say births reported by women on welfare have fallen by 15 percent.

Officials in several states agree that any drop in births is probably not due to the family cap alone.

Even the more cautious welfare researchers say it is possible that the welfare reform debate and its strong message emphasizing personal responsibility – not just the family cap – could be having an effect on behavior – perhaps a short-lived "shock effect" that may dissipate later.

"I'm not going to say the family cap is causing all that," said Scott C. Oostdyk, Virginia's deputy secretary for health and human resources. "A lot of folks got the message they were outside the norm and maybe this was something that was not socially acceptable."

In New Jersey, the state implemented the family cap at the same time it told mothers on welfare that they must work or get training or education if their youngest child was 2 or older.

"We want people to make responsible decisions about childbearing," said New Jersey Welfare Commissioner William Waldman. "I believe the public message does have an impact on people's behavior."

But welfare researchers say any drop in births should be seen in the context of what is happening across the country. Nationally, birth rates dropped 7 percent between 1990 and 1995, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Over the same period, rates dropped 17 percent for black women, who are disproportionately represented in the welfare population.

That makes it difficult to know how much of the drop in states reporting notable declines would have happened regardless of welfare policy changes.

Researchers also caution that the family cap numbers raise numerous unanswered questions, among them: Could falling birth rates in some states be explained by an increase in abortions? Abortion statistics are notoriously poor in many states. Are women not bothering to report new births because they no longer receive the additional benefits? Are some families claiming that a new child will be raised by a grandmother or other relative as a subterfuge to continue receiving benefits? Are young women increasing their use of more long-term contraceptives, such as Norplant and Depo-Provera?

In Massachusetts, welfare director Claire McIntire argues that the primary purpose of the family cap was not to reduce births, and that five months of flat birth numbers is not nearly enough time to know its effect on a mother's decision to bear more children.

"We're asking welfare mothers to take responsibility for what they do," she said. "We're not saying you're absolutely forbidden to have children. It's your choice, knowing if you have a child you will receive no additional money from the taxpayers."

One thing is clear: The threat of losing out on $90 a month in extra benefits doesn't get much notice in the chaotic lives of many women on welfare. It must compete with an often chronic state of crisis, with frequent moves from one tenuous household to another, with a constant struggle to pay the bills, and with neighborhoods wracked by violence and crime, and boyfriends in and out of jail.

Despite all that, Nandora Myers and other women on welfare here say they were aware of the family cap and other changing welfare rules. It just wasn't enough to change their lives.

"I was thinking I got to be careful," said Myers. She had been using Depo-Provera, a contraceptive delivered in a shot every three months. "I must have missed the appointment," she said. "I don't know what I was thinking. I had three little kids. Sometimes things just slip my mind."

Compared with many others on the caseload, Myers has some advantages. She completed high school and has held several jobs over the years. But for reasons not even she can explain, it seems impossible for her to take control of her life the way policy makers envision she should.

As she describes her thinking on the family cap, the realities of being a single mother of four young children intrude: Five-year-old Kyle interrupts her to announce that the baby is crying. Myers must shoo away 2-year-old Ashley, who seems to have upset Michael. She sends Kyle to fetch a bottle. Only her 4-year-old, Kwameeshie, is quiet.

The question of how she ended up bearing four children by three different fathers is not a simple one to answer. Myers said she had been taking birth control pills, then enforced a condom rule, then opted for the foolproof method of Depo-Provera.

When even that didn't work and she had Michael, she went after a permanent solution, getting her tubes tied. "They gladly did it," she said.

If welfare reformers believed they could reduce births among Myers and other poor women, they may have underestimated what they were up against. More than half of all pregnancies in this country are unintended, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. That figure climbs for poor, less educated, young and minority women. But even among higher-income women, 45 percent of pregnancies are unintended, a term defined as mistimed or unwanted.

Nineteen-year-old Stacey Burns, for example, said she was using birth control pills when she discovered she was pregnant. She already was raising a baby girl on her own, but had begun to take control of her life. She had completed her high school equivalency exam, had been accepted at community college and had arranged for financial aid. When she found out she was pregnant for a second time, she was devastated.

"My daughter wasn't even a year old," said Burns, who is unmarried and living in a Catholic Charities group home for teenage mothers in Lynn, Mass. "I'm still not ready to take care of two kids, but I don't believe in abortion or giving up my baby for adoption. I feel like I had no choice."

She knew about the family cap, but had given it little thought since she wanted to prevent another pregnancy for her own reasons. "The hardest part," she said, "is just gonna be buying diapers and everything else I need."

Least surprised by the unchanged welfare birth numbers in Massachusetts are social workers who spend their days counseling young mothers.

Sylvia Missal, who runs a young parent program at Children's Hospital in Boston, said the welfare mothers she deals with are very much aware of the family cap. "Long before this rule, adolescent girls were saying they didn't want to have a second baby," she said. "But they're not able to organize themselves" to prevent it.

Researchers who have looked at welfare policies and their impact around the country tend to believe that the economic incentive in the family cap is relatively weak – loss of additional benefits that, across the nation, typically amount to around $70 a month. Also, the loss of that income is mitigated to some extent by an increase in food stamps triggered by the new child.

"We're trying to change the most fundamentally, biologically programmed impulses of human beings – to have babies – by waving $40 a month at them," said Harvard University sociologist Christopher Jencks. "Would you have expected this to turn people around in some way?"

Other welfare changes, including work requirements and time limits, are much more likely to have an impact, according to Jencks and several other analysts. When women contemplate supporting three children, rather than one or two, after their time limit on welfare runs out, or paying child care costs for more children, they will be more likely to avoid having bigger families, they say.

Research has shown that births are likely to fall when women are more educated and see promising futures for themselves. But nearly half of all AFDC mothers do not have a high school diploma, and programs aimed at improving the future prospects of teenage welfare mothers have been only marginally successful.

Still Douglas Besharov, a welfare researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that young women in the inner city are absorbing the message that welfare will no longer be a lifelong option for them to fall back on.

"Family caps, welfare reform, talking about illegitimacy is all a form of social signaling," he said. "We're changing people's views of what it means to have a baby when you cannot provide for it. There has been a sea change in public attitudes on this."

He also argued that the family cap may help social workers who, for fear of sounding judgmental, have found it hard to tell young women they should not have more children until they can support them. Now social workers can merely point to the policy.

For some young women, however, the message intended by family cap sponsors is ringing hollow.

"It's like a stranger in the street telling me I shouldn't wear those sneakers," said 18-year-old Shante Hodges, whose third child is due in April. "The politicians tell them not to have a baby, but that doesn't mean they're not going to have it. And they're going to find one way or another to support their child."

Hodges, who has a 3-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter, knew about the family cap, and even gives it something of an endorsement, saying some women "think they can have as many kids as they want and welfare will take care of them."

But she also finds it naive that lawmakers believed they could change a woman's mind about whether to have a baby by taking that money away.

The extra money, she said, "is not going to put Pampers on your baby. It's not going to feed your baby when your baby is hungry."

Hodges had been on birth control pills, she said, but quit taking them because her boyfriend was in jail. When he was released, she didn't have any contraceptives around the house. And that's when she became pregnant.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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