BOSTON — A large group of lawmakers is renewing its push to repeal a rule denying welfare benefits for children born into families that already receive public assistance.
Legislation backed by more than 100 lawmakers, including many who represent the North of Boston region, would end the so-called “cap on kids” estimated to affect 9,000 children.
The proposal, which came close to passing in the previous legislative session, receives a public airing Tuesday before a legislative committee.
“There are so many families with kids who are struggling to make ends meet because of these restrictions, both in my district and throughout the state,” said Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “We’re one of only 17 states that still has a cap on kids, and it’s time for Massachusetts to take a step forward by doing away with it.”
Another supporter, Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, said working with low-income families as a legal aid attorney showed her the cap’s effect.
“It doesn’t just affect the kids who are capped out, but the entire family,” she said. “Lifting this cap will have a huge impact on people’s lives.”
The House and Senate passed a similar measure as part of the budget last year, but Gov. Charlie Baker sent it back with proposed changes. He agreed to lift the cap if lawmakers passed other reforms, such as one that would count federal Supplemental Security Income in weighing a family’s eligibility for the state’s main welfare benefit program, Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Legislative leaders in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate rejected Baker’s welfare reforms and sent back the bill with the original cap repeal, which Baker then vetoed.
In his $43 billion budget proposal filed last month, Baker included his own plan to eliminate the cap — along with other welfare reforms.
Advocates for the poor have been prodding the state for years to eliminate the cap, which they have criticized as a relic of failed welfare reform efforts of the 1990s.
They say the restrictions are discriminatory and force parents struggling to find work and housing to forgo basic necessities.
“It’s a policy that really harms children who live in the lowest-income households in the state, and forces their families to choose between buying diapers and paying bills,” said Naomi Meyer, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services and member of the Campaign to Lift the Cap on Kids. “It has created some tremendous hardships for these families.”
Meyer said advocates are “confident” about its passage this time around, especially given that legislative leaders appear to have moved the measure to the top of the agenda.
To date, 130 lawmakers — mostly Democrats but a few Republicans — have signed on to the proposal. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, both Democrats, have voiced support for ending the cap.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, recently added his name to the legislation in support of the changes.
Meanwhile, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues has tucked a similar proposal eliminating the welfare cap onto a $144 million supplemental spending bill, which is to be considered by the full Senate on Thursday. The House passed a similar version of the spending bill last week, without lifting the cap.
Supporters of the bill say eliminating the cap — which costs about $13 million a year — will be offset by the decline in welfare recipients that has been underway for decades.
The number of families on the state’s main cash assistance program fluctuates each year but has declined significantly since the 1990s to about 29,000 households in July, according to state data. The state spends about $16 million a month on the program.
The amount of help a family may receive is based upon its size.
A mother of two children can get up to $578 a month as well as a yearly clothing allowance of $300 per child, according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance.
If a child is born into a family already receiving benefits — or within several years of receiving state assistance — the family gets $478 and no clothing allowance for the newest child.
Massachusetts is one of 17 states that cap benefits for families that have children while on public assistance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least seven states have repealed caps in recent years, the group said, including Arkansas and Mississippi.
Meyer said the caps are “deeply flawed” because they assume mothers are having children to get additional benefits.
“Women on welfare aren’t having babies to get an extra $100 a month,” she said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.