What Is a Family Cap?

N. Madison

A family cap is a term used in determining welfare benefit eligibility. Essentially, a family cap means a welfare agency will provide benefits to eligible families based on the number of family members they already have. If a family has additional children while already receiving welfare benefits, the welfare agency can refuse to offer additional benefits, and in some jurisdictions, reduce the benefits the family is already receiving. This is intended to discourage people from having additional children while they are on assistance and struggling financially. The use of family caps is controversial, however, because some see it as penalizing the poor.

Officials use the family cap to help calculate a family's eligibility for welfare benefits.
Officials use the family cap to help calculate a family's eligibility for welfare benefits.

Welfare organizations provide a range of benefits to individuals and families who meet eligibility and need requirements. To reduce the number of births to families who receive this type of assistance, some jurisdictions set a family cap. This cap essentially means the eligible family members will receive welfare benefits based on the current family size. If the family size increases because the family has additional children, one of two things can happen. The family might be denied the additional benefits to cover the new family members, or in some places, the family may even face a reduction in current benefits.

The rules regarding family caps typically differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, some jurisdictions apply the family cap to any child who is born 10 months or more after the family began receiving assistance. In others, the cap applies when a child is born a year or more later. When a family cap is applied by a welfare organization, it often applies to cash benefits the family is eligible to receive. It is important to note, however, that food assistance programs might not always meet all of a family’s nutritional needs. As such, the family’s ability to purchase enough nutritious food may be affected as well.

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Family cap guidelines are often the subject of disagreements. Those who support them often assert that their use works to decrease the out-of-wedlock or in-poverty birth rate and prevent the weakening of families that might occur when there is an additional child for whom to provide. Some even state that welfare is a drain on taxpayers, who should not have to help provide for additional children.

Those who are against family caps typically have a range of reasons for opposing these policies. Some of the most common arguments against them include the idea that family caps punish innocent children by depriving them of money to meet their needs and further weakening families with financial difficulties. Some also argue that it is cruel to deny a person the right to have a child because he is poor. Furthermore, some opponents produce studies that show the positive effect of family caps on out-of-wedlock births is questionable.

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