BOSTON — Democratic lawmakers have soundly rejected Gov. Charlie Baker's plan to tie welfare reforms to the repeal of a rule that denies benefits for children born into families already getting public assistance.
The House and Senate agreed as part of this year's budget to lift the so-called "cap on kids" that advocates say affects nearly 9,000 children in poverty.
Baker sent the proposal back to the Legislature as an amendment, agreeing to lift the cap if lawmakers approve reforms including one that would allow federal Supplemental Security Income to be used to determine eligibility for the state’s Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Both chambers rejected his proposal late Monday in a vote that went largely along party lines.
"This amendment would be two steps forward, two steps back," said Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, urging fellow senators to reject Baker’s reforms. "Instead of penalizing children for when they were born, we would be penalizing them for having a parent on Social Security."
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, joined other GOP senators in supporting Baker's amendment.
"It ensures we don't create inequalities as that cap is lifted by treating SSI the same as other benefits, like veterans and disability insurance, for determining eligibility," he said. "If we don't make this change, we could create a perverse disincentive for folks to enter the workforce."
Welfare advocates say Baker's plan would mean shifting another group of needy kids off welfare, defeating the purpose of lifting the cap.
"It's totally unacceptable," said Naomi Meyer, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services and member of the Campaign to Lift the Cap on Kids. "We're not going to trade off one group of poor children against another group of poor children who require basic support to meet their needs."
House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez, D-Jamaica Plain, told reporters the governor's amendment would have resulted in at least 5,200 children losing benefits, while another 2,100 would see their benefits reduced.
"As a commonwealth we are compelled to help our most vulnerable families provide basic necessities for their children," he said.
The number of families on the state’s primary cash assistance program fluctuates slightly every year. Overall the number has declined substantially since the 1990s to about 29,000 households in July, according to state data.
The state now 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 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 while a family is getting 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, including Arkansas and Mississippi, that cap benefits for families that have additional 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.
Advocates for the poor have been prodding the state for years to lift the cap, which was enacted as part of welfare reforms in the mid-1990s. They say the restrictions are discriminatory and force parents struggling to find work and housing to forgo basic necessities.
"Women on welfare aren’t having babies to get an extra $100 a month," said Rebecca Hart-Holder, executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, a member of the Lift the Cap on Kids coalition. "This cap is a relic of racist and sexist welfare reform policies that sought to limit family sizes."
Baker now has 10 days to sign or veto the measure. If he rejects it, lawmakers have pledged to override his veto in the next legislative session.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.