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Decades old cap on welfare benefits for families is repealed

For nearly a quarter century, Massachusetts families receiving welfare benefits were denied additional assistance when another child was born. That ban, known as the family cap, was repealed Thursday when the state Senate voted to override Governor Charlie Baker, ending a political chess match that stretched through multiple legislative votes over the past two years.

The cap was currently denying benefits to about 8,700 children living in deep poverty, according to child advocates.

Thursday’s vote included an emergency section, making the law effective immediately, and will grant the additional benefits to families retroactive to Jan. 1. The state has until Sept. 1 to calculate those additional benefits.


Families typically receive about $100 a month for each child, but were denied additional welfare benefits for any child who was conceived while, or soon after, the family began receiving benefits.

“One hundred dollars a month can make the difference in whether struggling families can afford diapers, warm clothes, and other basic necessities for their kids,” Naomi Meyer of Greater Boston Legal Services, said in a statement.

The legal organization cofounded a coalition of 125 groups that fought to lift the cap, which was enacted in 1995.

A spokeswoman for Baker declined comment on Thursday’s vote, but referred to the governor’s statements when vetoing earlier legislative attempts to lift the child cap. In an April 8 statement to legislators, Baker said lifting the cap should be tied to other reforms he wanted in the welfare program. Those reforms, he said, would create a “more equitable and streamlined approach to the calculation of [welfare] benefits, while establishing the right set of incentives.”

One key reform Baker wanted would require that Social Security benefits parents receive when they have a disability would be counted in determining their income eligibility for family welfare benefits.


Child advocates and legislators balked at that. They said it would cut off benefits for 7,300 children living with severely disabled parents who the Social Security Administration had already decided weren’t able to work.

Senator Sal DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat, who long pushed to lift the cap, said Thursday’s action was the right thing to do.

“I have heard many personal accounts from families who have been hurt by this cap on kids — parents who struggle to meet their families’ basic needs because of this policy,” DiDomenico said in a statement. “Today, I am proud to say that we have put an end to this ineffective and unjust policy and show that we value all children equally, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.”

The Legislature twice repealed the cap in 2018 during the last legislative session, once in the budget and again after Baker returned the measure with an amendment conditioning the repeal on counting a disabled parent’s Social Security disability benefits as income.

“With today’s vote, Massachusetts has affirmed the dignity and humanity of every child,” said Deborah Harris of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which helped organize the coalition that fought for the repeal.

The Institute estimates the annual cost of lifting the cap and extending benefits to 8,700 more children will cost Massachusetts between $11 million and $12 million, not including the retroactive payments this year.

Until lawmakers repealed the cap, Massachusetts was one of 16 states — including Arkansas, Mississippi, and North Carolina — that still have a cap on children. Nine other states have repealed their laws, while 26 other states, including all the other New England states except Connecticut, never had a family cap rule, according to the Institute’s research.


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.