N.J. Welfare Test Fails to Yield Clear Answers

Article excerpt

After nearly three years of denying assistance to women in New Jersey who continue to have more children while on welfare, officials are still unsure what they have achieved.

On one hand, the latest state data show a 12 percent reduction in the birth rate for welfare mothers since the "family cap" took effect in August 1993.

On the other hand, the birth rate statewide in New Jersey, among welfare and non-welfare mothers alike, has also shown a decline.

Even among welfare recipients, Rutgers University researchers have found no difference in the birth rates of two experimental groups - one group subject to the cap and another group exempted from it.

Rudolf Myers, the New Jersey Human Services Department official overseeing the evaluation, said the birth-rate data defy neat interpretation.

"There is no way to tell if it's the family cap or something in the water," he said.

Kristi Hamrick, communications director for the conservative Family Research Council, in Washington, said the birth-rate decline proves that family caps work. "It makes the point we've been making all along - government policy does have an impact on behavior." But De Miller, director of Legal Services of New Jersey, one of several nonprofit organizations suing the state to lift the cap, said the birth-rate reduction is "trivial" compared with the thousands of children hurt by the measure.

While the welfare birth rate has dropped, the percentage of newborns excluded under the cap since it was instituted in August 1993 has grown to 44 percent from 38 percent.

Of 35,000 children born to welfare mothers since the cap began, about 15,300 are now ineligible for cash welfare benefits. The number is growing by about 500 children each month.

The amount of money per child a welfare recipient loses because of the cap ranges from $64 to $120 a month. That can make the difference between subsistence and destitution for a family already living on the edge, critics say.

And although New Jersey is required by federal welfare officials to evaluate certain effects of the family cap, these effects do not include homelessness, hunger, child abuse, truancy or foster care. …