By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff
The U.S. Census Bureau’s new report on family income reveals that 14.5 percent of all Americans, 45.3 million people, live in poverty. That’s two percentage points higher than 2007, before the recession.
Pennsylvania is no exception. In 2011, the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center noted poverty rising in most regions in the state, “highlighting the widespread impact of the recession and the need for policymakers to protect struggling families.”
So what does the Pennsylvania Legislature do the week they get back to work after a long summer off?
Propose cutting benefits to struggling families with newborn babies.
Sponsored by Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, HB 2477 would implement what’s known as a “family cap” on the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program. Family caps deny babies conceived while the family is enrolled in the program from receiving TANF benefits.
Quite literally, this bill attempts to deter poor women from giving birth by refusing to financially help the child.
In her memo introducing the bill, Swanger wrote that her intention is “to reduce the number of children born on public assistance.”
Evidence shows family caps don’t work that way. For starters, the concept is based on a false assumption. Low-income women are not deliberately getting pregnant and bearing children to snag more state benefits. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, “the average family size was the same (3.7 persons), whether or not a family received assistance.”
While family caps fail at their supposed intention, what they succeed in doing is increasing the number of families in deep poverty. In particular, they increase the deep poverty rate of single mothers and children.
The bill, recently referred to the state House Health committee, contains a rape and incest exception. It states that a poor mother can receive benefits to feed her infant if, while pregnant, she signs paperwork asserting she was the victim of rape or incest, and that she reported the assault to authorities “including the identity of the offender, if known.”
It’s unclear what prompted the bill. TANF benefits, which have not kept pace with inflation, are already failing to cover basic needs. The number of families receiving TANF in Pennsylvania is near an all-time low; benefit levels have not increased in 25 years. In fact, since 1997, the Commonwealth has reduced its TANF caseload by nearly 60 percent.
At the same time Swanger proposes cutting TANF for pregnant women, several lawmakers have proposed legislation to increase TANF benefits as part of the Agenda for Women’s Health, a pro-choice legislative package supported by the bipartisan Women’s Health Caucus.
Viewpoints, and voting records, like Swanger’s put poor women in an impossible position.
While supporting a family cap on TANF to try to prevent poor women from having children, Swanger has also voted several times to limit poor and working women’s access to abortion services.
Poor and working women of Pennsylvania need opportunities that will help them lift themselves and their families out of poverty. What they don’t need is to be pinned between policies intended to deprive their babies of benefits as punishment for becoming mothers, and ever-increasing barriers to affordable, safe and legal abortion.