At a luncheon for the Chamber of Commerce in Lexington, KY, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) floated the idea of capping government benefits for women who have children out of wedlock, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.
While he said that preventing unplanned pregnancies should be in the hands of communities and families, he added, “Maybe we have to say ‘enough’s enough, you shouldn’t be having kids after a certain amount.”’ He went on to say, “I don’t know how you do all that because then it’s tough to tell a woman with four kids that she’s got a fifth kid we’re not going to give her any more money. But we have to figure out how to get that message through because that is part of the answer.”
The idea of withholding benefits from women who have more than a certain number of children is actually current policy in many states. While most programs through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, or welfare) give families more money if they have more children, 16 states cap the assistance and don’t give any extra money for new children if someone in the household is already receiving aid.
These policies were initially adopted in an attempt to dissuade low-income women from having more children out of wedlock. But the results haven’t panned out. A 2001 Government Accountability Office report on whether or not they change birth rates couldn’t conclude whether there was any impact. In California, for example, where the state has been considering a repeal of its family cap policy, most women who receive welfare from the state have a similar number of children as those who don’t. What the policies do end up doing, however, is pushing people further into poverty. That can have serious health risks, with one study finding that some limits on benefits lead to a higher death rate.
The caps also get assumptions wrong about the people who rely on public programs. Overall, those who use public assistance have the same average family size as those who don’t. There’s little evidence that low-income women on welfare are having far more children than those who aren’t enrolled.
In light of these failings, states have actually moved to undo their caps. The 16 that still have them have shrunk from an original 23 when they were first enacted in the 1990s. Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Wyoming have all recently done away with them. Paul’s idea would move in the opposite direction.
The Senator also told the luncheon audience that being “married with kids versus unmarried with kids is the difference between living in poverty and not” and that the government “should sell that message.” While it’s true that the poverty rate is far higher for single parents than for married couples, that doesn’t necessarily mean that getting married is the answer. It can leave low-income women more unstable and worse off financially. What they really need is better access to contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancies and a much stronger social safety net to help them raise the children they do have. While Paul agrees with the Supreme Court decision that reversed bans on contraception, he voted in favor of the Blunt Amendment that would allow employers to deny their workers access to contraception through health insurance due to a moral objection.