SADOW: Let’s Put A Family Cap On Welfare Recipients In Louisiana

In all the talk about finding ways to bring Louisiana’s fiscal year 2016 budget into balance, through spending cuts and/or revenue additions, an obvious policy change of the former should stand out – limit welfare receipts to those who already receive some forms of assistance if they have another child.

Colloquially termed “welfare queen” laws, about half of all states placefamily caps on recipients in a variety of programs. While a few states offer either a flat amount regardless of children or a voucher spendable only on certain items, a couple reduce incremental payments as the number of children goes up and the rest deny the entire increment when a receiving family has another child.

In Louisiana, an unlimited number of children related to a head of household by blood, marriage or adoption may qualify for higher Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program dollars; 10 family members, for example, qualify for $512 monthly with roughly a $36 addition for every additional qualifying child. Another cash benefit program, the Kinship Care Subsidy Program, awards $222 per month for a child. Naturally, income for the family cannot exceed certain amounts.

For California it’s estimated that its family cap law saves $205 million annually, or about one percent of its total welfare spending. Translated to Louisiana, such a law would save around $24 million a year.

Mysteriously, such a commonsensical idea never seems to have crossed the mind of Louisiana lawmakers. Not a single bill since the creation of FITAP necessitated by federal law changes ever has been introduced to place a family cap. Perhaps they remain misled by two failed arguments against the caps.

One is built upon a straw man that such laws don’t affect behavior in a meaningful way. While few studies in the past few years have looked at the issue, most conclude there is no real effect, and some go off on value-laden tangents saying therefore such policies only hurt the life prospects of some children. But more comprehensive efforts, that view the policy in context of other policies designed to influence that behavior, do show a small but significant negative impact. This is entirely logical: when people have information about the consequences of choices, invariably rational individuals alter behavior according to these. Just because there is not a large impact and not under all conditions does not disqualify the policy from being used and successfully by tailoring other policy to complement to achieve marginal reductions in births and costs to taxpayers.

The other criticizes on the natal basis that policy ought not to discourage births, and, worse, may encourage abortions, for in some instances research shows an association between abortion rates in the target population and the presence of a family cap, explaining perhaps half of the reductions in births. However, that effect also seems associated with how laws define “medically necessary” abortions for which taxpayers foot the bill. With its stronger culture of life and state efforts to limit abortion as much as judicial interpretations allow, Louisiana would not appear to be very encouraging of this response to a family cap. And, it must be understood that a family cap does not prohibit births nor cause abortions, but merely expresses that taxpayers will not increase benefits as a result of a birth and that death of the unborn still lies on the conscience of those who decide to kill.

So Louisiana should implement a well-tailored family cap policy. That would consist of mandating that if a family is receiving TANF or KCSP funds 10 months prior to birth, it would not qualify for an additional subsidy. However, if a recipient as a condition of other benefits receipt has documented proper practice of birth control and a pregnancy occurs as a result of unintentional failure of that, an exception would be made. Further, information about the cap would be given at the time of beginning to receive these funds, as studies show typically few families are aware of the existence of the caps where they operate, which may be a reason why often they seem to have so little impact.

Families of any socioeconomic status should be free to have as many children as they like, but taxpayers are under no obligation to subsidize the enterprise. And a cap could encourage those who want more children to make more strenuous efforts to become employed to get off cash assistance, knowing that they still could qualify again (subject to the time limitations such as receipt only 24 months out of any 60 consecutives) if the additional child’s expenses became problematic.

Saving taxpayer dollars should be of utmost importance to Louisiana policy-makers at this time. The salutary impact of this kind of law should prompt legislation about it in this upcoming legislative session.

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