NEW YORK — THIS week New Jersey became the first state to freeze income benefits for women who have additional children while on welfare.
Implementation of the controversial cap, part of a broad welfare-reform package that yesterday became state law, will be closely monitored by other states considering similar proposals.
Critics of the benefits freeze include church groups, poverty activists, and children's advocates, who say the cap is illegal. "It's penalizing children for being born into welfare," says Rebecca Adams, a spokeswoman for the Association for the Children of New Jersey. She says the extra $64 a month that would be denied recipients for each additional child is not enough to pay for a month's worth of diapers. "What's going to happen is that all of the children in the family are going to get squeezed even m ore" to stretch existing benefits to cover everyone, she says.
Wayne Bryant, the black state legislator who sponsored the package, says the cap, which would take effect after a 10-month grace period and would not cut Medicaid and day-care benefits for additional children, is not meant to be punitive. He says the measure is aimed at encouraging more responsible behavior and at breaking the welfare-dependency cycle. The measure is on solid legal ground, he says. Welfare meant to be temporary
"Welfare is not a constitutional right; it's a privilege," insists Luis Pastoriza, a legislative aide to Representative Bryant. Mr. Pastoriza says welfare was always intended as temporary aid. The new law, he says, should encourage greater self-sufficiency. He notes that most welfare families in New Jersey have two children or less. Only about 8 percent of those on welfare are likely to be affected by the law, he says.
Edward Martone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, says his office expects to receive many calls from welfare recipients when the cap takes effect. The ACLU, he says, may decide to represent a caller and challenge the law on constitutional grounds. Choosing the size of one's family is protected by the first-amendment right to freedom of association, he says.
Yet some provisions of the welfare package are welcomed even by sharp critics of the benefit cap. One such measure allows mothers who take jobs to earn up to 50 percent of their grant amounts without losing benefits. Another allows recipients to marry without losing benefits - if the husband is not the natural father and if the total family income is not more than 150 percent above poverty level. "We're moving to the realization that two-parent families need help also," Ms. Adams says. New law encourages work
Like most other states trying to reform their welfare rules, New Jersey wants to encourage welfare recipients to work or enroll in school or job-training programs. Benefits would be reduced for those able but unwilling to make that effort. Research to date shows an encouraging track record for many state efforts to put more welfare recipients to work. Yet efforts to change the behavior of those getting public aid - by discouraging additional pregnancies, for instance - have scored few successes.
New Jersey intends to make a strong effort, including use of an 800 number, to publicize the new provision. However, Republican lawmakers who, early this year, gained control of the legislature from the Democrats who passed the original legislation cut $7.5 million from the originally proposed $10 million starting budget.
Bryant is sponsoring a new bill to restore the lost funds. However, the ACLU's Edward Martone notes that only three of New Jersey's 21 counties have job-training centers and that funds now have been cut even from those. He says the state's new welfare reforms "punish people for not taking advantage of a job-training program which isn't funded and isn't offered."