Ban on Welfare Benefits for New Babies Stirring Debate : Reform: California considers the plan, which New Jersey is trying. Ethical and legal questions are involved.


Marisol Gonzalez, who has been collecting welfare checks since she emigrated from Puerto Rico five years ago, is an unlikely cheerleader for New Jersey's reform experiment, which withholds the added cash usually received by mothers who have children while on the rolls.

"It makes people on welfare more disciplined," said Gonzalez, 23, who had a daughter out of wedlock before moving to the mainland. "If I have another child, I know that the child will have to depend on me and not on welfare."

Gonzalez's words are music to the ears of welfare reformers in New Jersey, who are the first to implement a program that is gaining popularity around the country and is a key component of California's proposed welfare reform.

Now President Clinton is wrestling with whether to embrace the family cap, as the policy is known, in the national welfare reform package he hopes to send to Congress in April or May. The family cap touches so many legal and ethical nerves that the senior officials designing the Administration's plan left the decision to the President himself.

"Whether or not this is the right approach, it is very important to do something to discourage young mothers who have gone on welfare from having a second child," said White House domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed, co-chairman of Clinton's welfare reform task force. "That second child makes it much more difficult to find child care, finish school and get through training programs."

The heated debate over the issue shows the complications faced by welfare reformers as they try to push adults to be more responsible without hurting their children.

Proponents claim that the family cap would indeed enforce the fundamental goal of welfare reform: encouraging recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children to take responsibility for supporting themselves and their children.

"The real message is: You've got to make some decisions about getting yourself out of poverty," said Marion Reitz, director of New Jersey's Division of Family Development. "You can't keep having more children and expect to be supported by AFDC."

Opponents respond that it would violate recipients' most basic rights and throw families ever deeper into poverty. Martha Davis, legal counsel for the National Organization for Women, compared the family cap to China's policy of fining people for having more than one child.

"The very troubling thing about this program is the intent of government to use government benefits to pressure or coerce people into making certain reproductive decisions," Davis said.

NOW and the American Civil Liberties Union are helping eight New Jersey women, who were denied monthly increases in their welfare checks after having babies, to challenge the family cap program in court.

It was the George Bush Administration that approved the New Jersey experiment. The Clinton Administration followed that lead by permitting Georgia to operate a similar program, considering requests from California, Arkansas, Maryland and Wisconsin to do the same and discussing possible applications from several other states.

"This debate is going on in almost every state Legislature," Reed said. "It does save money, and so it is a way to offset some of the costs of welfare reform."

Initial reports on the New Jersey program, which went into effect in August, show a significant decrease in the number of births.

Welfare reformers nationwide, desperate to find ways to save money in the face of burgeoning caseloads, have kept a careful eye on New Jersey's initially promising results, although welfare administrators caution that it is too early to make conclusive judgments.

Since August, births among New Jersey welfare mothers have been down at least 10% each month compared with the same month the previous year. Parents of 1,825 babies have been denied the $64 a month that they receive for their brothers and sisters.

Critics of the program say they are unimpressed by the statistics. Births are declining in New Jersey for all women, they say, and welfare mothers are no longer motivated to report births because they receive no extra benefits.

More fundamentally, they disagree that women on welfare irresponsibly get pregnant time after time simply to collect fatter benefit checks. In fact, they say, women receiving AFDC have an average of 1.9 children--precisely the average for all women.

Whatever the ethics, Gonzalez and the 18 other welfare recipients taking an office-skills class in this city of 50,000 in an agricultural region of southern New Jersey, say the family cap has made them more careful about birth control and more sober about the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy.

But Linda Hutchinson, a welfare recipient, admitted that it had had no impact on her 21-year-old daughter, who also receives public assistance and is about to have a second child.

"I don't think anything will make her responsible," Hutchinson, 38, said with a shrug. "I don't think it means anything to her that her checks will not grow."

Some Administration officials say they believe that the policy could help turn the welfare mind-set from reliance on government to a desire to be independent.

"It sends a clear message that the intent of the President's welfare reform is to have people take responsibility for their own lives," said Walter Broadnax, deputy Health and Human Services secretary and a member of Clinton's welfare reform working group.

"You can call anything social engineering, including using stop signs," Broadnax said. "In every society there are a certain set of values the government tries to promote with its policies."

Women's rights advocates and welfare experts who oppose the family cap argue that, for reasons ranging from rape and incest to failed birth control techniques, women do not always control whether they become pregnant. The mothers of the resulting children, they argue, should not be penalized by a freeze on their AFDC payments.

In Vineland, that argument resonates even among welfare recipients who favor the family cap.

Delores DeJesus, 19, who has a 9-month-old daughter and is taking training classes to get off welfare, uses a surgically implanted contraceptive called Norplant. "If I get pregnant again, I would like some help," she said. "There's no way I could support another child, but I don't believe in abortion."

But abortion, say some opponents of the family cap, is exactly where the policy is likely to lead.

"Two women in (the New Jersey lawsuit) seriously considered having abortions but decided for religious and other reasons not to," said David Sciarra, a legal services lawyer. "Do you want to create a strong compulsion to push people into terminating pregnancy?"

He cited the case of a third plaintiff in the lawsuit, who was receiving $424 a month for herself and her two children but got no increase when she became pregnant again and bore triplets.

"You say: 'Go out and get a job,' but how can a woman with three infants do that?" Sciarra said. "The kids are really harmed in this."

Mark Greenberg, a welfare specialist at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, said politicians find the family cap attractive because it makes them appear to be serious about welfare reform without spending money.

"It has become increasingly difficult to claim with a straight face that someone would choose to have another child to get an additional $50 to $60 a month," he said. "The virtue of this issue is that it becomes an easy way for politicians to talk about how they're discouraging irresponsible behavior."

But California's welfare commissioner, Eloise Anderson, says the policy is not political posturing but an essential component of reform.

"All we're saying is that while we're helping you, we don't want you having any more babies," Anderson said. "What's wrong with that?"

Working women do not get automatic raises when they have children, she says.

"Why should our expectations of a women on AFDC be any different than any other woman?" she said. "Do we think they're stupider or less capable of being rational?"

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