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N.J. Bill Would Deny Welfare Mothers Additional Benefits for More Children

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Mothers on welfare would be denied additional benefits if they have more children, under a welfare-reform package given final approval by the New Jersey legislature last week.

The proposal comes at a time when rising welfare rolls and severe budget shortfalls have prompted several states to consider linking benefits to changes in behavior related to schooling, job training, health care, and marriage.

While at least two other states have entertained linking welfare benefits to childbearing, New Jersey will become the first state to enact such a measure if Gov. James J. Florio approves it.

The Governor, who had until Jan. 21 to sign the package, was expected to accept the measure, which was passed as part of a six-bill package ushered through by Democratic leaders shortly before they turned over control of the legislature to the new Republican majority.

Organizations such as the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, several church-related groups, and the Association for Children of New Jersey strongly oppose the bill and have indicated that they would consider a legal challenge.

Giving Recipients a Choice?

The welfare-reform package would require recipients to take part in education, training, or job-related activities, while cutting or terminating benefits to those who persistently failed to do so without good cause.

To encourage marriage and help preserve families, other elements of the package would: allow a mother on welfare to marry without losing her benefits; establish a 17-member interagency council to advise the governor on community-restoration projects; and set up a social-services hotline to help families resolve problems related to child care, child abuse, job training, domestic violence, substance abuse, health care, rent assistance, and other issues.

While those provisions were approved easily during Senate consideration of the legislation, the cut-off of additional aid to mothers who have more children initially was defeated on a 13-to-4 vote. The proposal passed 22 to 4, however, after its sponsor, Assemblyman Wayne R. Bryant, swayed several senators who had abstained and one who had opposed it.

"What this does is give welfare recipients a choice," Mr. Bryant said. "They either can have the additional children and work to pay the added costs, or they can decide not to have any more children."

Under the proposal, recipients would be allowed to take a job and earn extra money without jeopardizing their existing grant.

Or Blaming Women?

Opponents have charged that the measure unfairly penalizes women and denies children benefits to which they are legally entitled.

"Women are blamed for becoming pregnant in this bill even though the pregnancy might have been unintentional,'' said Donna Puluka, president of the state chapter of NOW. "Those kinds of attempts at social engineering are just not acceptable legislatively."

The state's public advocate, Willredo Caraballo, argued during hearings on the bill that "denying additional benefits will only harm innocent children by depriving those children of the assistance needed for proper food, clothing, shelter, and medical care."

Mr. Caraballo also contended that the measure would violate the intent of state and federal welfare laws.

Even if the U.S. Health and Human Services Department grants the state a waiver, "serious constitutional questions" are likely to be raised about the proposal, maintained Mark Greenberg, a senior staff lawyer for the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

Gov. Pete Wilson of California has advanced a similar plan as part of a broader welfare-reform proposal that would also cut benefits across the beard. The initiatives are expected to be placed on the November ballot. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1991 .)

Wisconsin officials, meanwhile, continue to explore a proposal that would cut benefits for the second and subsequent children of new welfare recipients who are teenage mothers.

The legislature last year turned down the proposal, which was put forward by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson. (See Education Week, Feb. 20, 1991 .)

Mr. Thompson used his veto power, however, to keep alive a provision authorizing the state social-services department to seek a federal waiver for a pilot program. Wisconsin also was the first state to tie welfare benefits to school attendance.

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