Testimony on HB 1226 -- The Welfare Reform Bill

To: Members of the Senate Human Services Committee
From: Christopher T. Dodson, Executive Director
Subject: HB 1226 (Welfare Reform)
Date: March 4, 1997

There is perhaps no more important piece of legislation this body will address this session. The ultimate test of any society and, therefore, this legislative assembly, is how well it responds to the needs of its poor. Welfare reform, because it touches the most vulnerable among us, is not a matter for partisan opportunity seeking, "scape goating", or games of "one-upmanship" to see who can appear the toughest on those on welfare. There is no place for such motives here.

Our contribution to this debate stems from two resources. First, through the experiences of Catholic Family Services, our health care facilities, and our parishes -- often the first places to which people in financial crises turn -- we have gained critical insight into poverty in our state. Second, the Catholic Church has a tradition of moral reasoning that we believe set forth a reasoned set of principles needed to guide a moral evaluation of any proposed changes in our welfare system. From these two resources we advocate a welfare system which:

* Protects Human Life and Dignity
* Strengthens Family Life
* Encourages and Rewards Work
* Preserves a Safety Net for the Vulnerable
* Builds Public/Private Partnerships to Overcome Poverty
* Invests in Human Dignity

This forum does not provide an opportunity to address all these principles as they relate to all the important aspects of welfare reform in North Dakota. We nevertheless urge this committee to keep these principles in mind as you consider every part of HB 1226.
We will focus here on what we consider to be the most significant portions of HB 1226. In making these comments, we will not address the proposed state TANF plan or unalterable provisions of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, except when those provisions affect the interpretation of provisions in HB 1226. Nor will we respond specifically to the child support, funding, or TANF "swap" provisions of HB 1226.

Our testimony will focus primarily on Section 75 of the bill and, especially, the subsections addressing the administration of TANF through the TEEM program. Our comments will be taken as they appear in the bill.

a. Coverage During Pregnancy
The North Dakota Catholic Conference opposes subsection (a) of the bill (page 67, line 30.)
In 1991, this state, with bipartisan support, enacted pioneering legislation entitled the family support act. Pro-life and pro-choice groups joined forces and insisted that women facing crisis pregnancies because of a lack of financial resources receive help during pregnancy. Subsection (a) reverses this important legislation. There is no good public policy reason for this reversal. As Department officials can attest, the program has not been overly costly. Moreover, its costs were certainly justified by the public policy benefits of providing women in crisis pregnancies with assistance during a crucial time.

We suggest amending the bill so that the subsection reads as it did in the original bill draft. This would still abolish the program enacted in 1991. However, it would permit flexibility in the TANF program for such a program. Indeed, such coverage was expressly permitted by the federal law.

b. Lifetime Limits
We support affording households the 60 month time limit provided by the federal law. A few points regarding the 60 month limit should be kept in mind:

1. The 60 months is a lifetime limit, potentially spanning 47 years. Very few of us can predict what economic crises we may face in such a long period of time.

2. The 60 month provision does not provide an incentive for a person to stay on welfare for five years. The work provisions still apply, as well as any other responsibilities stated in the individual's assessment. Presumably, fulfilling these requirements, especially working, will move the person off public assistance. If they fail to work or comply with the other requirements, they will face losing assistance. In short, it will be very difficult for a person to purposely stay on welfare, notwithstanding the 60 month limit.

3. The information we have regarding the present system indicates why the 60 month provision will not lead to abuse. Under the present system, there exist virtually no time limits, yet very few persons ever receive assistance for more than 60 months. Moreover, it is highly likely that the situation would have been different for those few if they were subject to the other requirements contained in this bill and the federal law.

4. In short, affording the full 60 months provides protection for two situations. The first situation is where a person works but for some reason cannot make enough to no longer be eligible for assistance. The second situation is when a person does remove his or herself from assistance, but faces a financial downturn at a later time. Indeed, it could be decades later. Considering that so much of our economy in North Dakota is dependent upon an unpredictable agricultural economy, preserving the 60 month option is, quite simply, the wise thing to do.
c. Hardship Exemption
We support exempting up to 20% of the monthly caseload from the time limit. Permitting exemption for up to 20% best assures that anyone who does qualify for the exemption because of mental or physical disability of a parent or child or incapacity can, in fact, be exempted.

An additional point about this subsection should be kept in mind. If anything less than sixty months is considered in subsection (b), this committee should amend subsection (c) to permit exemption of other hardship cases. This would permit flexibility to address the two situations I discussed earlier -- when a person works but for some reason cannot make enough to go off assistance and when a person does remove his or herself from assistance, but faces a financial downturn at a later time.

e, and m. Assistance to Non-citizens
The North Dakota Catholic Conference is still analyzing the language of subsections (e) and (m.) At this time, we offer only this guiding principle. As a society, we provide public assistance because of our duty to respond to a person's inherent dignity. That dignity does not depend upon their political status. This principle is as old as the earliest books of the Old Testament. Leviticus states: You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself. . ." (Lv. 19:33-34.) This is not a matter of religious doctrine. Rather, it is a moral call to respect and support all persons, without regard for their status as immigrant or citizen.

j, k, and aa. Out-of-Wedlock Pregnancy Reduction, Statutory Rape Prevention, and Pre pregnancy Family Planning
The North Dakota Catholic Conference strongly supports efforts to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and statutory rape. However, we have a number of questions and concerns about the details of such a programs. Our main concern with HB 1226 was that, in it original form, it contained some specific concerning such programs but not others. The amended language merely restates what is required by the federal law. This appears to reflect a decision by the House that the details of such programs will be left to the Department and other relevant parties to develop at a later time. Accordingly, we will address those programs at another forum. We support section 80 of the bill that would establish a task force for addressing subsections j, k, and aa.

o.Domestic Violence Screening
The North Dakota Catholic Conference supports efforts to screen and identify victims of domestic violence for service referrals. Our efforts should not stop there. The program should be arranged so that such victims, if necessary, can be included in the 20% exemption in subsection (c).

u.Work Exemptions for Single Mothers
The North Dakota Catholic Conference has previously opposed exemption from work only for short periods of time. This is a crucial time for a child and every child deserves to be with a parent during this time. We recognize, however, that the federal law provides only twelve months exclusion for a lifetime. Given this fact, we testified in the House that the four months per child is reasonable. This ensures that time will be available should the mother have additional children.

However, we did not anticipate that the bill would be amended to discriminate against those additional children by the family cap provision of subsection (dd). Any benefit of providing time for the mother to care for her newborn is offset by the burden placed on that mother by denying her assistance for that additional child. It is unlikely that she will be able to stay at home since, being denied assistance, she will have to work immediately. The effect of subsection (u) combined with subsection (dd) for most women is that the lifetime limit will be four months, not the twelve permitted by the federal law.

dd.The Family Cap Provision
North Dakota Catholic Conference strongly opposes subsection (dd). As I stated at the beginning of this testimony, a welfare system must protects human life and dignity and strengthen family life. Family caps fail to meet this criterion. Permit us to address some of the problems with a family cap.

Family Caps Do Not Work
Although enacting family caps make some feel like they are doing something to reduce the birth rate of women on public assistance, there does not, in fact, exist any evidence indicating that family caps work -- at least not in a way that we should desire as a society. If family caps worked, there would exist a relationship between receiving public assistance and conception decisions. Thus, if they worked, families would be smaller in states with low grant levels and larger in states with high grant levels. However, families receiving AFDC are not bigger in states with larger AFDC grants and the state with the highest percentage of welfare families with four or more children - Mississippi - has the lowest AFDC grant level. If they worked, families on welfare would be larger than other families. However, AFDC families are typically not large - the average AFDC family has only one or two children ["1994 Green Book", House Ways and Means].

A Rutgers University study of the family cap in New Jersey, the state with the most experience with family caps, found that the birth rates for both mothers subject to a loss of benefits because a family cap and those who continued to receive benefits were virtually identical. In other words, the family cap has had no discernable impact on the child-bearing decisions of mothers on public assistance. Another study that examined fertility rates among AFDC mothers in Wisconsin concluded that fertility rates for AFDC mothers were lower than rates for the general population, and that the longer a woman remains on welfare, the less likely she is to give birth [Mark Rank, "Fertility Among Women on Welfare: Incidence and Determinants"]. These findings are consistent with a series of studies over the last decade which have shown very little relationship between grant levels and birth rates of low income women. In short, implementing family caps is implementing an unproven and dangerous policy.

Family Caps Encourage Abortions
One of the reasons enacting such a policy is dangerous is that family caps encourage abortion.

In the first eight months after the implementation of the New Jersey family cap, the abortion rate for poor women increased by 3.6%. While this may not seem statistically significant, it has enormous significance to those children, their mothers, and their families. This increase in abortions for poor women reversed a downward trend over the several years prior to the enactment of the family cap. Over the previous four years, New Jersey's abortion rate had declined 12%. The rate continued to decline for non-poor women. The more a particular woman is economically pressured, the more likely she is to choose abortion for that reason. Studies show that for low income women money plays a large role in their decision to abort a child. Seventy percent of women with incomes up to 149% of poverty level say that economics was a factor in choosing to abort. "Choosing," however, is not an adequate word for there is no true "choice" when a woman is denied economic assistance that could permit her to bring that child to full term solely because she happens to be on assistance when the child would be born. This is one reasons why organizations on both sides of the abortion debate have opposed family caps.

The family cap provision in HB 1226 is especially egregious. The message of the family cap provision in HB 1226 is that, whatever the circumstances of that child's conception, that child will be denied public assistance if it is born while the mother is on assistance.

Family Caps Punish the Child
We must remember that TANF is a child based system. It is designed to assist the children by helping their families. Family caps, however, assist some children, but not others. When we begin to look at family caps in practice, it is apparent that there is not rational justification for discriminating against some children and not others.

For example, a person could have four already born children and seek and receive assistance for all four. If, however, a person has one child and a second child is born while the mother is on assistance, that second child would be denied assistance. What rational justification is there for discriminating against that second child? How are the needs of that child any less than the four children in the first example or the first child in the second? Unless there is a rational reason why that child needs are less than all other children, this body should not consider family caps.

Some respond that the difference does not concern the child, but the mother. That is, the mother, being poor, should not have had another child. This reasoning is flawed for two reasons. First, there is no reason to punish the child for the perceived "mistake" of the parent. Second, the family cap in HB 1226 would apply even if the family was off assistance when the child was conceived. A similar argument is that a family cap will reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies. However, the cap in HB 1226 would apply to all families, including families consisting of married couples. Moreover, there is no evidence that assistance affects conception decisions.

Besides, North Dakota can do something about out-of-wedlock, teenage, or other pregnancies without resorting to the unproven method of family caps. House Bill 1226 and the Proposed State TANF Plan already address the issue by:

* Requiring the Department of Human Services to take action and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies;

* Providing pre-pregnancy family planning services;

* Including family planning in the recipient's initial assessment;

* Requiring welfare recipients to work;

* Exempting single mothers from the work requirements only for four months and for only twelve months in a lifetime;

* Providing for abstinence education programs for youth;

* Encouraging marriage by disregarding the stepparents' income for six months when a person on assistance marries;

* Requiring minor parents to live with their parents or in an approved adult supervised setting;

* Requiring minor parents to stay in school or work; and

* Establishing a Task Force to specifically address out-of-wedlock pregnancies and statutory rape.

Shouldn't we give these initiatives a chance before we try an unproven and potentially disastrous family cap?

Family Caps Fail to Respect the Life and Dignity of the Most Vulnerable Among Us

In addition to looking at the facts, we should not forget the principles we embrace when we enact a family cap. A family cap punishes a child for what some in society perceive as a "mistake" of the parent. There are two problems with this approach. First, is questionable whether the state has a right to tell married couples that conceiving a child is "wrong" simply because they are on public assistance. Second, we are all diminished when we punish a child solely because his or her parents happened to have had a child before and because they are on public assistance. That child's right to life and to assistance from the state is no different than the sibling that came before.

This is why family caps are not a partisan issue. Indeed, the narrow vote on the House floor to remove the family cap provision was bipartisan. This is why organizations across the political spectrum oppose family caps. This is why the integrity of North Dakota's welfare reform system depends on the removal of the family cap provision from HB 1226.

Although there exist other aspects of welfare reform that concern us, this concludes our testimony on the main TANF provisions of HB 1226. We urge the committee to amend HB 1226, especially by removing the family cap provision, so that North Dakota can move forward with welfare reform that respects, rather than endangers, human life and that enhances, rather than diminishes, human dignity.