Ineffective Family Cap Policies: The Misdiagnosis and Contributor to Women’s Poverty

Delfina Martinez-Pandiani

The year 1996 marked the establishment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) that dismantled an entitlement system known as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) which had been in operation for over 60 years. In its place, PRWORA created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant program that still functions today.1 Under TANF, states acquired increased flexibility in creating programs that reduce the financial dependence of needy families on government aid, as well as decrease incidences of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.2 Consequently, this new legislation allowed states to impose policies regulating the reproductive health and rights of women under poverty without federal approval. One such policy is the “family-cap” or “child-exclusion” policy, which denies additional income support to poor women who bear a child while receiving TANF.3

While more than twenty states have implemented family caps as part of their TANF plans,1 several issues arise when considering the effectiveness of these policies. First, these family cap policies fail to make exceptions for births that could not have been deterred — such as those resulting from rape, incest, or failed contraception — nor do they take into consideration multiple births. For instance, if a mother receiving TANF for one previous child gives birth to triplets, under the family cap this family of five must survive on a grant calculated to meet the needs of a family of two.4 An evaluation of the family cap policies’ effectiveness requires a careful investigation of their motivations and potentially disproportionate effects on minority women. This disproportionality ought to be analyzed within the historical context of classism and racism; this evaluation is imperative as it can inform potentially more successful avenues of reducing poverty — the policies’ ostensible goal.

While the family cap policy is generally viewed as a “mechanism for poverty prevention,”5 the motivations underlying the policy is based on a number of unsubstantiated assumptions. Examples of such assumptions include that welfare encourages childbirth, that welfare causes dependency, and that marriage can end children’s poverty — all of which have been disproven.4 Further, the policy assumes that low-income women base their reproductive decisions on government policies. It expects “that the lack of additional welfare funds will influence poor women to avoid giving birth to additional children.”5 This reproductive policy reveals a potentially problematic conjecture that the women in poverty base their reproduction decisions primarily on the availability of additional income support from the state welfare system.

This assumption appears to be unfounded when examining the results of studies investigating the effectiveness of family cap policies. A range of studies reveal that the majority of women affected by them are unaware of its existence. The few women that were aware of this policy had misconceptions about them; thus, did not include the policy in their reproductive decisions.3 Agénor (MPH, Harvard School of Public Health) along with Romero (PhD Hunter College, CUNY) devised a study in which women who actually relied on welfare were interviewed, and found that 75% of the women deemed government policies as completely irrelevant to their decision to have a child while receiving TANF.5 Instead, the women indicated that their fertility-related decisions were based on their personal and relationship circumstances. Romero and Agénor also compared the National Surveys of Family Growth before and after the implementation of the family cap policy. They found that there were no significant differences between poor women in family-cap and non–family-cap states, “providing national-level evidence of a lack of effect of this anti-poverty policy.”5 Several other analyses have also reported negative findings. Using data collected by the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), Ryan et al. (University of Maryland) concluded that “the family-cap policy, which was designed for the sole purpose of reducing additional births, had no significant association with subsequent non-marital childbearing.”6 Similarly, Harris et al. (University of North Carolina) conducted a study in 2003 of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, examining the effects of state-level policies–including the family cap – that were specifically targeted at reducing non-marital childbearing. The researchers also concluded that “consistent with other research, the effects of welfare policies on family formation behaviors are weak or non-existent.”7

These distressing results regarding the ineffectiveness of family cap policies prompted the federal government to conduct its own research. A General Accounting Office report was unable to prove the effectiveness of these policies: “due to limitations of the existing research, we cannot conclude that family cap policies reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock births, affect the number of abortions, or change the size of the TANF caseload.”2 As a result, some states have realized and accepted the inconsistency and ineffectiveness of the policy and taken action: the lack of an impact of the family cap was the reason for repealing the policy by at least one state.8 The repeal of these policies in some states is founded upon the realization that if the policy is not effective, it is imperative to conduct an examination “of the consequences of potentially increased economic hardship on already-poor families”3 both from a public health and civil rights perspective.

If the family cap policies are ineffective, then why are they still in effect? An analysis of the disproportionate effects of the policies on minority populations might provide a clue. Currently, Black and Latina women are disproportionately represented among women enrolled in TANF. Additionally, all else equal, family caps and strict time limits were found to be significantly more likely in states with higher percentages of African Americans and Latinos in their welfare caseloads.5 In order words, states in which welfare recipients were almost all White were less likely to employ family cap policies. Thus, African Americans and Latinos who receive cash assistance are much more likely to be subject to the policy than their white counterparts.3

These statistics and facts are concerning: they hint at potentially racist implications of – if not motivations for – the passage of this policy in certain states. A racial factor in state adoption of such family cap policies could be construed from the disproportionate representation of women of color in current TANF caseloads, and this inevitably adds to the importance of assessing and analyzing its effect on fertility and poverty.5 This critical analysis is especially imperative when considering the racially motivated oppressive reproductive policies of the past in this country: procreation by women of color has traditionally been devalued and discouraged. Attempts to control the reproduction of women of color in the United States are not new, and racial injustice has profoundly impacted our conception of welfare — to many scholars, “racism has created a notion of social accountability that leaves poor people to fend for themselves and conditions any government charity on forfeiture of personal liberties.”4

Alarmingly, the racial implications of the family cap policies could be seen as reflective of the implications and motivations of the eugenics movement of the turn of the twentieth century. A potential parallel might be observed in the sense that both view the reproductive behavior of poor fertile women as the cause of poverty. In this way, “politicians and public opinion have turned the poverty debate to focus on the reproductive habits of welfare recipients and have legitimated the use of family caps in return for life-sustaining benefits.”1 The inability of current policies to deal with structural inequalities of racism and classism that cause the poverty of single mothers and their children is thus veiled through an emphasis on the sexual and reproductive behavior of poor women. The family cap penalty explicitly treats poor and non-poor women differentially, and “presents an economically coercive environment for women’s reproductive decision making.”5 Regardless of the true nature of the motivations of these policies, then, it is increasingly evident that its consequences jeopardize low-income women’s process of self-determination. This differential jeopardization stems simply from the women’s place in the socio-economic scale — which is inextricably connected to a history of racism.

Not only is this differential access and right to reproductive health disconcerting, it also violates international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Cairo and Beijing conferences are just some of the documents ratified or otherwise endorsed by the United States that contain within them fundamental policies that family caps violate.5 Internationally accepted tenets of human rights and procreative freedom, including the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of social or economic standing — which the United States constantly claims to uphold — are clearly violated by the differential treatment of poor women and children inherent in family-cap policies.

A thorough analysis of various aspects of current family cap policies — including their disputed effectiveness, their implications on minority populations, its potential echoes to previous eugenics forces, and its differential encroachment of self-determination along class lines — questions the effectiveness of perceiving reproductive behavior as a cause of poverty. The perception of poverty as simply “too many newborns” leads to ineffective — and potentially racist and classist — policies that actually misdiagnose the causes of women’s poverty, and misprescribe the cure.9 This misdiagnosis of poverty’s causes that ideologically underlies the family cap policies has to be addressed. An actual reduction of poverty necessitates a reconsideration of the shortcomings of systems in place. Poverty is not caused by childbearing, but rather by unfair power dynamics, the current economic system, race, class and gender discrimination, lack of jobs, lack of daycare, and other forms of institutional and structural discrimination.1 The assignation of women’s reproductivity as a cause of poverty leads to an ineffective and unfair focus on women’s reproductive choices. Rather, focus should be placed on policies that would more effectively reduce women’s poverty, such as the elimination of racism and sexism in the labor market, good job availability, advanced education, and childcare that allows women to maintain employment.


  1. Pierson-Balik DA. Race, class, and gender in punitive welfare reform: social eugenics and welfare policy. Race, Gender, and Class in American Politics 2003;10:11-30.

  2. US Government Accountability Office. (2001). Welfare reform: More research needed on TANF family caps and other policies for reducing outof-wedlock births. Washington, DC: US GAO

  3. Romero D, Fortune-Greeley H, Verea JL, Salas-Lopez D. Meaning of the family-cap policy for poor women: contraceptive and fertility decision-making. Social Work in Public Health 2007; 23:165-182.

  4. Roberts DE. 1997. Killing the Black Body. Chapter 5: The welfare debate: who pays for procreation? (pp. 202-245).

  5. Romero D, Agénor M. US fertility prevention as poverty prevention: an empirical question and social justice issue. Women’s Health Issues 2009;19:355-364.

  6. Ryan, Suzanne, Jennifer Manlove, and Sandra L. Hofferth. “State-level welfare policies and nonmarital subsequent childbearing.” Population Research and Policy Review 25.1 (2006): 103-126.

  7. Harris et al. Welfare Reform and Nonmarital Childbearing in the Transition to Adulthood. Association for Public Policy and Management (APPAM) Research Conference (2003). Washington, DC

  8. Pollack, W. (2008). The right to social security in the United States: Ending welfare as we know it. In C. Soohoo, C. Albisa, & M. Davis (Eds.), Bringing human rights home. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

  9. Thomas SL. Race, gender, and welfare reform: the antinatalist response. Journal of Black Studies 1998; 28:419-446.