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    Yvonne Abraham

    The welfare cap is laughable — and cruel

    A generation ago, our legislators did something cruel, and not very smart, and now is the time to undo it.

    In the early 1990s, even more than today, welfare recipients were widely viewed as irresponsible and immoral. Poor people on public assistance were seen by some as living in comfortable indolence on the taxpayers’ dime, maximizing their benefits by purposely producing one child after another.

    Enter welfare reform, the effort by lawmakers across the nation to squeeze as many recipients off the rolls as possible, while still laying claim to being a civilized country. Some states imposed family caps, withholding cash and other benefits from children born to families already on public assistance. They believed this would stop poor women from having more children. They were wrong. Studies showed family caps had no effect on birth rates among women on welfare, which were on par with those of the general population.

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    The idea that a woman would bring a child into the world for less than $100 extra a month is laughable. The idea that cutting off benefits would prevent pregnancies is ridiculous. Instead, it just made parents’ lives — and more importantly, their children’s lives — more difficult.

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    Far from being immune to this ugliness, progressive Massachusetts embraced it. During debates over the cap in 1994, supporters from both parties trucked in the old ugly stereotypes, conjuring the specter of welfare queens and their unstoppable wave of “illegitimate” children.

    House Speaker Tom Finneran helped lead the charge for the caps, which passed over the objections of impassioned opponents.

    “We shouldn’t have a separate set of standards for this dysfunctional underclass,” Finneran said. And, “Inappropriate decisions are being made and they should not be encouraged.”

    Finneran, you may recall, made his own inappropriate decisions and eventually pleaded guilty to federal obstruction of justice charges. Maybe it’s unfair to mention that here. But unfair doesn’t begin to cover what happened to poor families under this state’s attempt at social engineering.

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    Rachel Mulroy never wanted to be on public assistance. The 34-year-old from New Bedford needed welfare after she first left her abusive husband about 11 years ago. She found work, but didn’t earn enough to keep afloat. She returned to her abuser out of financial necessity. Her birth control failed, and she got pregnant. After she left him again, for good this time, she applied for welfare again, and was told her younger daughter was excluded because of the cap. She would get $478 a month, not the $578 ordinarily allotted to families with two children. So she had to stretch her payments further, scrimping on diapers and trudging miles to the supermarket to save on bus passes she couldn’t afford.

    “The idea that women are having babies to qualify for more assistance is put forward by people who have no idea what single mothers go through when they’re forced into poverty,” said Mulroy, now a community organizer working to lift the cap. “Every child should count.”

    There are about 9,000 children in Massachusetts who don’t count — kids from whom we withhold help because of what this state decided are bad choices by their parents.

    And what benefits we do provide are meager. Cash benefits today are worth barely half of what they were in 1988. At the same time, partly because of increasingly stringent requirements, the state’s welfare rolls have been steadily shrinking. If current trends continue, the state will spend about $28 million less on cash payments in 2018 than in 2017 — more than enough to cover the $11.7 million advocates say it would cost to lift the cap.

    Of the 24 states that passed caps, seven have repealed them. It’s time Massachusetts did too.

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    “If families qualify for assistance, let’s give them all the assistance they need,” said Marjorie Decker, the Cambridge rep who is pushing a repeal bill.

    There’s a hearing on the cap at the State House on Tuesday. But it’s a no-brainer. As Mulroy says, “It’s time to stop pointing the finger at poor people.”

    It’s time to deal with poverty itself.

    Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.