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Advocates praise Mass. House move to lift welfare cap on families

Massachusetts House of Representatives voted April 25 to approve a budget amendment that would reverse a 1995 law preventing families from receiving an additional $100 in assistance for a child conceived while the family is receiving benefits. Photo by Melissa Doroquez via Flikr (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

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BOSTON -- Massachusetts House of Representatives voted this week to advance a measure that would repeal a 1990s law that advocates say unfairly harms needy children and their families.

During debates on a proposed $41 billion state budget bill, the Massachusetts House voted to adopt an amendment that would repeal a restriction preventing families receiving additional welfare benefits when a child is conceived while the family receives benefits.

Amendment #1361, Valuing Children Equally, was adopted April 25 as part of a consolidated amendment on social services and veterans, two days after the House began debates on the proposed state budget for the 2019 fiscal year. More than half of the 160 House representatives had signed onto the amendment, of which Marjorie Decker, State Representative for the 25th Middlesex district, was the lead sponsor.

A coalition of about 120 organizations, including Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston and Catholic Social Services of Fall River, Inc., advocated for the amendment through the "Campaign to Lift the Cap on Kids." It served as a unifying cause, with organizations of different religious faiths and from different sides of the political spectrum coming together in support of the amendment, including both pro-life and pro-choice organizations.

In a statement to The Pilot April 25, Deborah Harris, a senior staff attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), one of the key advocates of the amendment, noted the unity, and said "Groups that don't always work together agree that imposing financial penalties for having a child is inhumane and unjust."

If included in the final budget, the amendment would take effect July 1, 2019, and would essentially repeal a 1995 restriction that prevents families receiving welfare benefits from an additional assistance for a child conceived while the family receives the benefits. It does not apply to children born before that period.

Across Massachusetts, "the family cap" or "the cap on kids," as it is frequently called, denies an estimated 8,700 children in poverty $100 per month in benefits and clothing allowance of $300 per year.

The cap was born in part out of an idea that families might have children simply to receive extra benefits, an idea that current-day repeal advocates say is not supported by facts. They note that Massachusetts is one of only 17 states to have such caps still in place, after seven states with similar policies have since repealed them.

"The House has taken a big step towards eliminating an immoral rule that penalized children for being born," said Harris. "The Campaign to Lift the Cap on Kids commends Speaker Robert DeLeo and Jeffrey Sanchez, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, for undoing a policy that hurt vulnerable children.

"We also thank Representative Marjorie Decker of Cambridge, who sponsored the amendment along with 86 co-sponsors, a majority of House members. The amendment passed unanimously," she said.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in the Commonwealth, submitted testimony to lawmakers in 2017 in support of repealing the family cap. While it had not issued a formal statement immediately after the amendment adoption by the House, MCC director Jim Driscoll expressed to The Pilot April 25 a continued support of a repeal.

"I'm happy to see it," he said of the adoption. The amendment is "great for kids, it's great for parents," and will help those in need.

The state Senate is expected to debate a budget proposal in May, before a conference committee will work to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate proposals. A final proposal will likely be presented for Gov. Charlie Baker to approve or veto in the summer.

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