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TANF's Long Reach

This is about one of the worst laws signed by President Clinton - the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which dramatically cut cash benefits to the poor and limited cash benefits to five years. States could choose to adopt this portion of the law - to restrict poor families from receiving additional benefits when they have additional children. 14 states currently adopt this rule: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. How does it work? In Massachusetts, a single parent with two children receives $578 in TANF benefits each month. But if a second child is born while the family is already receiving TANF, that child is ineligible, and the family receives $100 less, for a grant of $478. 22 states originally adopted the cap and so far, 8 states repealed the cap, the most recent is New Jersey. 

You can imagine the comments from conservatives. "If they get more money for more babies, they will just keep having babies." That is the most common racist and sexist refrain. Never mind that no one would have an incentive to have another baby for $100 a month or that several studies demonstrate there is no incentive. Facts don't matter; just prejudices. If you find yourself agreeing with conservatives, follow the above link to the best study completed by the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law (CCRJ). In an extremely well- documented study, the authors lay out the dubious assumptions underlying such prejudices. It is a good read.

The idea, that some people will have babies irresponsibly and therefore must have their reproduction controlled by authorities, can be traced back to the eugenics movement and the push to sterilize poor women at the beginning of the 20th century. Hitler was quoted as saying that Germans needed to study what America was doing in its sterilization program. Sterilization efforts continued way into the 1960s and 1970s. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in 1974 demonstrating that between 100,000 to 150,000 sterilizations were occurring each year under federally funded programs. PBS' Independent Lens gave a poignant documentary about the impact of sterilizations on girls, some as young as nine. Yes, it is the case that capping the cash benefits when a recipient had another child is a far cry from sterilization. But it comes from the same thinking - that the state must control women's reproduction.

Meanwhile, slowly we are reversing the trend of punishing women for having children by reducing their cash benefits. Where there were 22 states capping cash benefits in the 90s, now there are only 14. We need to make it 0.


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