No Magic Bullets for Welfare Reform

July 09, 1995

Welfare reform is no issue for anyone lacking patience. It took decades to build up the system that now exists, and it won't be reformed overnight. Sad to say, there are no magic bullets to spur the process.

So it comes as no surprise that a study of New Jersey's pioneering use of the "family cap" found that refusing to increase payments to mothers who have another child while on welfare has no significant effect on birthrates among women on welfare.

The new study crushes the hopes of those who looked to a prior report suggesting that the family cap could dramatically lower birthrates among women on welfare. Experts caution that even the new report is not the last word, since it is based on data from only the first year of New Jersey's family cap. A longer-term study may find that the regulation does have a slight effect on birth, but it will not be the significant factor the prior report indicated.

Does this mean the family cap is just another gimmick? That depends. If a state adopts it in order to lower the birthrate to women who already have more children than they can support, the answer is no. There is now no credible evidence that the family cap will accomplish that goal. But if a state clearly sees its limitations, it could make a legitimate argument for such a policy.

If welfare reform is fundamentally a matter of changing the culture of dependence, then a family cap sends a worthwhile message. The most compelling argument is one of fairness: Workers don't automatically get a raise when a new baby arrives, so why should a welfare recipient? Granted, that question glosses over many of the factors that complicate the lives of welfare recipients, but it is one that resonates with the working poor, those families who are one car repair away from welfare eligibility themselves.

A politically potent objection to family caps comes from anti-abortion activists who fear these rules will increase the demand for abortions. Their objection points to another glaring inadequacy in the current welfare system: the lack of accessible, comprehensive family planning services that will help women prevent pregnancies in the first place.

Family planning is no magic bullet, either. But it's a simpler, less controversial and more effective place to start than family caps.

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