Schaefer's 'Family Cap'

February 14, 1994

No one likes the welfare system, least of all those who depend on it. But float a proposal for reform and, just as surely, objections will abound. A good example is the controversial "family cap," one of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's reforms now pending before the General Assembly. It would halt automatic increases in welfare payments if a recipient has an additional child.

Advocates for the poor strongly object. They note that 77 percent of welfare recipients have only one or two children and that there is no sound evidence such caps influence childbearing. And, as usual in opposing reforms, they say such measures hurt the innocent parties -- the children.

Yet these arguments skirt political reality. Family caps, time limits and other disciplines often have more to do with symbolism than facts. That raises a question for advocates: If a family cap would affect relatively few recipients but make the public feel better about welfare, why not go along? As punitive measures go, this isn't the worst. It also strikes many people as fair. As proponents put it: Did you get a raise because you had another child?

The trouble is, using a family cap so people feel better about welfare only makes the system more hypocritical. For all Governor Schaefer's bluster about reform, his package ignores a central issue: Medicaid funding for abortions. It make no sense ,, to tell women they shouldn't have more children, while not providing them with contraceptives and access to abortion when contraceptives fail (as they do). Between 1978, when the General Assembly restricted access to Medicaid abortions, and 1991, Medicaid abortions dropped by more than half. When it comes to abortion, politicians are gun-shy. Yet any realistic welfare reform proposal must tackle that issue while also providing better access to contraceptives.

Technically, welfare recipients do have coverage for contraceptive care, but the circumstances of their lives limit their access to it. Public health clinics are overcrowded, creating long lines. And many women lack transportation to clinics, especially in rural regions. By some estimates, only 60 percent of Maryland women eligible for government-funded contraceptive care have access to it.

When the governor and legislature are ready to tackle these issues -- and when there is serious money in the budget for day care, job training and other reform-related programs -- you'll know they are serious about welfare reform. Until then, it's just smoke and mirrors.

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