Clinton seen set to back 'family cap' for welfare

May 26, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Ending months of intense debate within the administration, President Clinton will propose making it easier for states to deny additional benefits to women who have children while already on welfare, senior administration officials say.

The decision aligns Mr. Clinton with those inside and outside the administration who argue that government must intensify its efforts to discourage out-of-wedlock births, which now constitute roughly 30 percent of all births in America. "We think it is very important to discourage additional births on welfare," says one senior official. "We are saying that states that want to try this approach should be able to try it."

But the "family cap" policy inspires even more intense opposition among liberals than the proposed two-year time limit on welfare that is at the center of Mr. Clinton's plan, which is now expected to be introduced shortly after he returns from commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day in Europe next month.

The family cap issue is certain to provoke a polarized struggle in Congress. Many moderate and conservative legislators see the family cap as a way to promote personal responsibility, while liberals largely denounce it as racist and sexist social engineering. No other proposal may more starkly demonstrate the difficulty of finding common ground between left and right on the emotional issues swirling through welfare reform.

"This is clearly one where there are very deep feelings on both sides of the issue, and, apart from the families it directly affects, it has a large symbolic impact," says Mark Greenberg, an attorney with the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

In fact, although Mr. Clinton settled on the new policy at a Tuesday meeting, administration officials still appear divided over how closely to identify with the controversial idea. Some officials take pains to say the administration does not intend to push states to adopt family cap policies, merely to smooth the way for those interested in the idea. One agency official lukewarm to the policy insisted the decision left the administration "neutral" on the question of whether more states should adopt the caps.

But other senior officials acknowledge that by streamlining the approval process and signaling at least tacit federal support for the family cap, the administration plan will inevitably encourage more states to embrace the idea. Outside observers agree.

In Congress, which must approve Mr. Clinton's proposal, a fierce ideological cross-fire over the family cap idea has already erupted.

Many moderate and conservative legislators are pushing for sterner measures to discourage out-of-wedlock births. The principal House Republican reform bill would require states to deny additional benefits to women who have children while they are on the rolls, unless the state passes a law specifically providing such benefits. A group of House Democratic moderates led by Rep. Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., has introduced identical legislation.

"The administration proposal is still short of what I think is required, but they could have done worse," Mr. McCurdy says. "We have to, as a nation, start to remove the incentive for out-of-wedlock, illegitimate births."

A competing Republican welfare reform proposal -- introduced by conservative legislators in both houses and backed by leading conservative activists, including Jack F. Kemp and William J. Bennett -- would require family limits without allowing states to exempt themselves. In the name of further reducing illegitimate births, both Republican bills would also cut off all welfare payments to unmarried young mothers.

On the other hand, the family cap is pointedly absent in liberal welfare reform plans introduced last week by Rep. Robert T. Matsui, D-Calif., and yesterday, with 42 co-sponsors, by Rep. Patsy T. Mink, D-Hawaii. Internal administration opponents of the plan still hold out the hope that Mr. Clinton will trade away the family cap as a means of broadening liberal support for the overall initiative.

Liberal legislators and welfare advocacy groups regard the family cap as a mean-spirited effort that punishes the children of recipients in an effort to change their parents' behavior.

Advocates also contend that family caps pander to the stereotype that welfare recipients bear more children to sweeten their welfare checks. In fact, they say, welfare mothers typically receive only $57 more a month for a new child, while 72 percent of welfare families have two children or less, according to federal statistics.

Early results in New Jersey, the only state that has actually implemented a family cap, show that births have declined among welfare mothers since the policy went into place. But it remains uncertain whether those numbers reflect the cap's impact, a general decline in child-bearing in the state, or a decreased willingness among welfare recipients to report new births.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women are challenging the New Jersey plan in federal court, arguing that the policy violates the privacy rights of welfare recipients.

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