UPDATE (10/26/12): Within three days of the publication of this blog post, three of the six house sponsors of H.B. 2718 have removed their names from the sponsorship of the bill. The prime sponsor, Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, defended the bill initially, but reversed her position three hours later, saying that she did not check the language of the three-page bill. She has informed the Philadelphia Inquirer that the bill will not go forward in its current form.
By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney (10/23/12)
Led by State Representative RoseMarie Swanger of Lebanon County, lawmakers in Pennsylvania are targeting poor women and children with the introduction of House Bill 2718, which would prevent women who receive benefits under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) from receiving an incremental increase in benefits due to the birth of a child. As of October 17, 2012, the bill is in the Human Services Committee.
As the Women’s Law Project discussed in its report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, less than 2% of Pennsylvania’s residents receive TANF, and only 17.6% of Pennsylvania’s residents living below the official poverty line receive cash assistance benefits. That latter percentage will be even lower now that Governor Tom Corbett has eliminated General Assistance, the welfare benefit program for individuals who were ineligible for TANF. Most of the families who receive cash assistance through TANF live in counties where the monthly benefit is $403 for a family of three, often not enough for most families to meet their daily expenses.
Instead of helping these families who are struggling to make ends meet, H.B. 2718 seeks to reduce the assistance families receive by preventing a family from receiving additional TANF benefits if that family has a child while receiving benefits or while on a temporary period of ineligibility for TANF. The result is a denial of assistance to the most needy and vulnerable, the newborn children themselves and their families. This harmful bill serves as yet another example of how hypocritical many of Pennsylvania’s politicians are in caring only about “life” before birth and not afterwards.
The bill contains a narrow exception for survivors of rape and incest that is so fraught with conditions that it is unlikely that many survivors will be able to avail themselves of it. It is largely an empty gesture grounded in insulting beliefs about survivors of sexual violence. H.B. 2718 does not use the term “legitimate rape” explicitly, the term used by Republican Todd Akin in support of his inaccurate and ignorant argument that women cannot become pregnant as the result of a rape, but it is built upon similar stereotypes of rape survivors.
In essence, this legislation creates a “legitimate rape” test based on misconceptions of how “real” rape victims behave, a test that determines whether a family may receive the incremental increase in benefits after the birth of a child. If this legislation passes, a woman who is pregnant as a result of rape must send a signed statement to the Department of Public Welfare stating:
 that she was a victim of rape or incest…  that she reported the crime, including the identity of the offender, if known, to a law enforcement agency or  in the case of incest where a pregnant minor is the victim, to the county child protective service agency… stating the name of the law enforcement agency or child protective service agency to which the report was made and the date such report was made.
This bill presumes that “real” rape victims report the crime to police and will have no trouble disclosing the details of the crime to the Department of Public Welfare, when research shows us that many victims never inform the police for a wide variety of reasons. For example, as the Women’s Law Project wrote in its amicus brief in Reedy v. Evanson:
Decades of research has documented the fact that the vast majority of sexual assault victims do not report their sexual assault to police… Some of the most common reasons that victims give for not reporting are their fears that their report will not be taken seriously, they will not be believed, or they will be seen as responsible for their own assault. (internal citations omitted).
H.B. 2718 fails to reflect this reality of sexual assault, resulting in harm to survivors who become pregnant as a result of violence.
Pennsylvania’s women and children need laws that do not penalize and stereotype them. H.B. 2718 must be defeated.