Fairness and the 'Family Cap'

April 05, 1994

Give them credit: Gov. William Donald Schaefer and members of the General Assembly are tackling the welfare-reform issue nobody thought they would have the courage to face, Medicaid funding for abortion. The issue is one of fairness. The administration strongly supports a reform proposal designed to dissuade welfare recipients from having more babies. But the state also has in place severe restrictions on abortions paid for by Medicaid, and it needs to do much more to assure that welfare recipients have access to contraceptives that would prevent the need for abortions.

Legislators wisely recognized this dilemma and, in effect, linked the controversial "family cap" to the lifting of restrictions on Medicaid abortion. Unless floor challenges succeed in derailing the compromise, legislators can claim credit for forcing some honesty into the welfare-reform debate.

Some history is in order. Welfare reform was high on Governor Schaefer's list of priorities for his last legislative session. But the administration has chiefly focused on the family cap, a proposal that would deny higher welfare payments to women who give birth to another child after they begin receiving benefits. Many people see the cap as insignificant because it would affect relatively few women; most welfare recipients have only one or two children. But the proposal does send a sharp message to welfare recipients, and it strikes many people as fair. As supporters put it: Do other people get a raise when they have another child?

Legislators wisely recognized that their attempt to send a message through a family cap would be little more than grandstanding if they failed to help women prevent future births. The Senate accepted the family cap, but it also embraced provisions lifting the restrictions on Medicaid abortions. The House simply dropped the cap, but also made clear that if a final version of the welfare-reform legislation restored that provision, a majority of delegates would favor lifting restrictions on Medicaid abortions. There will also be more money in the new budget for family planning and, in an eminently sensible move, public health nurses will be placed in several dozen social services offices around the state to give welfare applicants better access to family planning services.

Last week, the governor's supplemental budget appeared, with language that mirrors the House of Delegates' link between the family cap and the lifting of Medicaid abortion restrictions. That link preserved the chances of getting the cap into law.

Whatever the outcome -- a family cap and the removal of abortion restrictions, or no cap and continued restrictions -- Maryland lawmakers can take pride in refusing to take the easy way out on welfare reform. Tackling hard issues always riles somebody. But it's the only road to real reform.

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