Lawmakers On Beacon Hill Put Kids At The Center Of The Welfare Debate

Mar 11, 2019

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has created a package of public assistance reforms — including one that rolls back a so-called "cap on kids."

The cap is a provision that makes children born to families who get assistance ineligible for an additional monthly benefit.

Matt Murphy with the Statehouse News Service breaks it down. 

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: This goes back to the mid-'90s, during the Clinton era when Democrats were pursuing more conservative welfare reforms, and trying to encourage people to get back to work.

And there was a cap put on families that limited the amount of assistance they could receive based on the number of children they had.

In an effort at the time, people [tried] to discourage people from having more children if they were on public assistance. And what the rule essentially says is that if a child is born to a family that is already receiving public assistance, or has in the past received public assistance, then that child would not be eligible for an additional $100 monthly benefit to the family. And [lawmakers] say that history has shown that this is not an effective strategy to helping lift people out of poverty, and they're trying to do away with it.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Do we get a sense of how many people this actually affects, and what financially this could mean for the state?

Proponents of this estimate that there are close to 9,000 families who have children who have fallen under this cap, and have not received benefits. And a coalition of over 100 organizations that have been fighting to lift this cap say the total cost of the state would be about $13 million, and that's out of about $185 million projected to be spent in FY 2019 on family assistance, or a program that is known as transitional assistance for families with dependent children.

We should point out that the $185 million is actually down from 1995, when this first rule was put into effect, when the state was spending upwards of $634 million on these same benefits. So the welfare caseload has dropped precipitously over the past 20 years or so, and legislators think that there's well enough money to pay for lifting this cap now.

But this cap is not the only one in the so-called package of reforms that the governor put forward. What are some of the other measures that he included?

The legislature actually passed this cap lift last year, or the cap repeal, last year. The governor returned it to them with some amendments. The legislature rejected those, and he ultimately vetoed the cap repeal at a point in time in August when the legislature was not in session, or able to override that veto — which is why we are where we are today. 

And the governor is hoping, he says, still to see the legislature take up his complete package, which includes a controversial proposal to count Social Security benefits as income towards their eligibility for these transitional aid family welfare benefits.

So this would essentially increase the amount of money that's used in the calculation to determine whether people are eligible for these family benefits, which opponents say would knock about 5,000 families off of the welfare rolls and hurt these families.

This has been a nonstarter in the legislature, both when Governor Baker has proposed it, and even back when Governor Deval Patrick — who was a Democrat — proposed the same thing. [Baker] is also proposing to do things like exempt the value of an asset of a single vehicle for a family from their income calculations. He thinks by exempting that, it will make it easier for people to pursue work. And those are the two big proposals that he is looking to include, along with the cap lift.

And when do we expect to hear some movement in the Statehouse on this issue?

What's interesting is it seems like there is a groundswell of support behind this, but we don't know exactly how it's going to move forward.

The Senate voted last week to repeal the cap, and they stuck it into a supplemental budget bill that is moving. The House did not include the cap in their version of the budget bill.

So we're still waiting to see whether or not the House is amenable to including this policy reform in this midyear FY 2019 budget bill — or if they're going to pursue standalone legislation, which was the subject of a hearing last week on Beacon Hill as well, and was quickly voted out of committee, and is moving towards the floor.

One of those two vehicles could be the way they approach it. But the House and Senate haven't agreed yet on how to get this done.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.