Myth: Welfare gives mothers an economic incentive to have more children.

Fact: Studies have not found a correlation between size of welfare benefits and families.


Welfare mothers actually have less of an economic incentive to have children than nonwelfare mothers. Studies have not been able to find a correlation between family size and the size of welfare benefits. Welfare families are virtually the same size as nonwelfare families; indeed, both have been declining over the decades. The New Jersey "family cap" experiment, which denies extra benefits to mothers who have more children, appears to have no effect on the welfare birthrate.


Many conservatives criticize welfare because it increases benefits when a mother has another child. This, they argue, is an economic incentive to have more children, an ill-considered policy which inflates the rolls of our welfare programs. As columnist Ellen Goodman wrote: "A family that works does not get a raise for having a child. Why then should a family that doesn't work?" (1)

Unfortunately, this argument is incorrect. Working families do receive "financial incentives" to have more children, and far larger ones than welfare provides. A working family receives a $2,450 tax deduction per child, and can claim up to $2,400 in tax credits to offset the costs of child care. By comparison, a welfare mother can only expect about $90 per month in increased AFDC payments for another child.

Not surprisingly, these "incentives" are too small to influence the behavior of potential parents, especially in a decision as life-altering and important as having a child. Ten major studies have been conducted on this issue in the last six years alone, and not one has found any connection between the level of payments offered and a woman's decision to bear children. (2)

Just one of these studies' findings is that states with higher benefits do not see higher birthrates among its welfare mothers. According to a 1992 study by Child Trends Inc., the five states with the highest birth rates among 18- and 19-year-old women -- Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico -- all have AFDC benefits below the national median. The four states with the lowest birth rates among 18- and 19-year-old women -- Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Vermont -- all have AFDC benefits above the national median.

The average AFDC family is virtually the same size as the average American family. Of all welfare families, 73.9 percent have two children or less. (3) Of all American families with children, this figure is 79.1 percent. (4) (Families without children are not qualified for welfare, even though they may need it, so there are conceptual problems with adding childless families to either side of this comparison.)

And, contrary to popular belief, the size of welfare families has been declining over the decades:

Decline in Average AFDC Family Size, 1969-1992: (5)

Year     Family size
1969     4.0 persons
1973     3.6
1975     3.2
1986     3.0
1992     2.9

Conservatives might point out that individual welfare benefits have also been declining over the years, hence the falling size of welfare families. (Between 1970 and 1991, the purchasing power of benefits for the typical AFDC family fell 42 percent, primarily as a result of state and federal cuts.) (6) However, the average size of all families in the U.S. has been falling for many decades now:

Average size of U.S. families (7)

Year     Family size
1960     3.7 persons
1970     3.6
1980     3.3
1990     3.2

This overall decline reflects the end of the Baby Boom in the mid-60s.

The New Jersey "Family Cap" Experiment

In August 1993, New Jersey became the first state in the union to experiment with the "family cap," a policy of denying additional benefits to welfare mothers who have more children. Conservatives predicted the new policy would curb the rise of single motherhood and illegitimate births, even though other conservatives feared it would drive up the abortion rate.

Results of the New Jersey experiment are mixed and inconclusive, partly because the benefits are not really capped. The first analysis of the family cap was announced by the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank), which claimed that in the sixteen months after the family cap took effect, the average monthly birth rate for New Jersey welfare mothers declined by 10 percent or more. (8)

However, the study turned out to be a typical bit of partisan think tank analysis. A more serious, 5-year study is being conducted by Michael Camasso at Rutgers University. The Rutgers study is comparing two groups: mothers who would receive more benefits if they had additional children while on welfare, and those who would be denied increased payments under the family cap. In a letter published by the Washington Post, Camasso wrote: "From August 1993 through July 1994 there is not a statistically significant difference between the birth rates in the experimental and control groups."

Although the Heritage study was correct in noticing a drop in birthrates among New Jersey's welfare mothers, this drop was also true of New Jersey mothers as a whole. And at any rate, the welfare benefits weren't really capped. Although welfare mothers who have more children are denied an extra $40 or $50 a month in AFDC, there is still additional food stamps, Medicaid, and sometimes housing assistance available.

Gregory Acs of the Urban Institute urges caution in interpreting the results so far. "It is indefensible to extrapolate from these results to recommendations for major changes in the nation's welfare system. Claims that eliminating welfare will virtually eliminate 'illegitimacy' are simultaneously unsupportable and irrefutable by conventional social science." (9)

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1. Ellen Goodman, editorial column in Boston Globe, April 16, 1992.

2. Gregory Acs, "Does Welfare Promote Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing?", p. 53 in Isabel V. Sawhill (ed.), Welfare Reform: Analysis of the Issues (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 1995). See also Urban Policy and Research Report, Fall 1993.

3. Overview of Entitlement Programs, Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994).

4. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P20-447, 1994 data.

5. U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, 1994 Green Book, p. 401.

6. Paul Taylor, "When Safety Nets Leave the Needy in Free Fall," Washington Post National Weekly Edition, September 9-11, 1991.

7. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P20-477.

8. Robert Rector, "The Impact of New Jersey's Family Cap on Out-of-Wedlock Births and Abortions," Heritage Foundation, September 6, 1995.

9. Gregory Acs, "Does Welfare Promote Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing?", p. 54 in Sawhill, Welfare Reform.