It’s Time to Retire the Word ‘Addict’

“The mother and father are both on drugs. The mother is a heroin addict. The father uses heroin and crystal meth.” This description was cut and copied repeatedly on official documents pertaining to my child services case, beginning with the April 2018 shelter petition, the mechanism by which my two young daughters were first taken from me. That handful of paragraphs, written out by an inexperienced Broward County Sheriff child services investigator, followed me for the next two years.

My husband, on the other hand, was never referred to as an addict, even though he was actually being accused of using one more illicit substance than me — methamphetamine in addition to heroin. It may be hard to understand why something like this matters. After all, don’t people use the word “addict” all the time?

There is an ongoing debate among the addiction treatment and harm reduction communities about which terms should be used when referring to drug use and addiction, and in what settings. In 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook updated their recommendations for reporting on addiction and drug use to exclude potentially stigmatizing terms such as “addict,” “alcoholic,” and “drug abuser,” except in the form of direct quotes. Instead, they recommend using person-first language, such as “person with a substance use disorder” or “people who are addicted to opioids.” These changes aligned with updates to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as well as recommendations by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Others followed suit: a 2018 update to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s blog specified that they no longer use terms such as “addict” or “substance abuser” (though the institute’s name remains unchanged), and in 2020 updated their website to replace all uses of the word “addict” as a noun with terminology such as “person with an addiction” or “habitual user.” They also updated their definition of the word “addict” to note that some might consider it offensive, and added a lengthy sensitivity note explaining: “addiction is the complicated result of genetic predisposition intersecting with dysfunctional behavior, neurochemical modification, environmental factors, and social influences,” and that many members of the treatment and recovery communities advocate against its use.

Controversy around terms such as “addict,” “alcoholic,” and “substance abuse” has been boiling for years. Many members of the medical, recovery, and harm reduction communities are happy to see changes like this implemented. For example, Olivia Pennelle, founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen and a journalist in long-term addiction recovery who covered the language debate for The Fix in 2018, said the changes are “important,” adding: “Only 10 percent of people [with a substance use disorder] get access to treatment…[and] a major factor is stigma. If we can do anything to change that, we should.”

On the other hand, Amy Dresner, also a journalist in long-term addiction recovery who authored an autobiography titled My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean, said she considers the use of language such as “junkie” and “addict” to be empowering when reclaimed as self-identifiers. And she says terms such as “person with a substance use disorder” fail to “convey the horror” of what she experienced during her active addiction.

“All that PC language feels like putting lipstick on a pig and hiding it more…[the changed terminology] sounds better, it sounds like you have empathy but does it really change somebody’s opinion?” she asked.

How you speak about the person you’re representing is how other people will see them.

Recent research backs the moves by and the Associated Press. A series of studies published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2018 found that several terms, including the word “addict,” were associated with negative social perceptions. It also found that these terms produced negative biases significant enough to impact people’s access to healthcare; for example, both treatment professionals and members of the general public were more inclined to recommend incarceration or other punitive measures to those labeled an “addict” or “substance abuser” while a “person with a substance use disorder” was more likely to be deemed in need of medical care.

Robert Ashford, the lead researcher in the language studies, explained a potential cause in a story I wrote for Filter Mag. “[Language is] the primary way we communicate…The cliché ‘words have power’ is the truth.” Regarding language employed in court settings specifically, he added: “It’s not that those [terms such as ‘person with substance use disorder’] are inherently positive; it’s that they are less negative than the pejorative terms that have been created over time. These things have a really strong emotional reaction to most people. We don’t need to do [courtroom actors] any favors by…using language that has come to mean something biased.”

“How you speak about the person you’re representing is how other people will see them and so using the correct language is extremely important,” added Dinah Ortiz, a harm reduction-oriented parent advocate located in New York City. “Language is like a stepping stone, then comes the harder stuff, but it starts with language…if we don’t care about calling a person a ‘junkie,’ a ‘dope fiend,’ a ‘crackhead,’ then we don’t care about that person.”

In my Florida State child services case, my husband and I both received the same charges — neglect and imminent risk of harm — and we both had our parental rights terminated in early 2020. On paper, we shared the same nightmare outcome at the end of a case riddled with misrepresentations of fact, blatant bias, and government overreach at its darkest. But there was a palpable difference in the courtroom between his treatment and mine. While my every word was interrogated with suspicion — I was never even counted as having income despite clearly being able to pay my bills and child support — my husband was rarely questioned. I was criticized for circumstances he and I shared, such as not having a car and relying on his parents for rides to our supervised visits, while he usually escaped mention.

At the disposition for our initial trial, when the judge determined that our daughters were unsafe in our care and should remain with their paternal grandparents while we completed a slew of tasks to try to regain custody, the judge cited as her reasons for issuing these charges against me: “The mother is an extraordinarily educated and gifted individual. You have a gift for language, both oral and written. Unfortunately, the Court finds that you could probably sell ice to an Eskimo.”

Although she issued the same charges against my husband, the judge stated that she “found the father’s testimony essentially credible before this Court,” and mentioned that he acknowledged having a “substance abuse history,” something I likewise acknowledged about myself (though I clarified it as a substance use disorder, as per the DSM IV and V).

While it is impossible to pinpoint my classification as an “addict” versus my husband’s as a “person who uses heroin and meth” as the reason for our differences in courtroom treatment, it can’t be ignored that this experience aligns near perfectly with the outcomes of Ashford’s experiments.

And, as explained by Sheila Vakharia, a former social worker and the current deputy director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance: “When you refer to someone as an ‘addict,’ and you make salient one person’s single relationship with a drug or several drugs, what happens is you then start to see that person through that lens of that one characteristic or trait, and it can make it hard to see the complexity of a person’s identity.”

Still, it’s hard to know how much, if at all, my case would have changed if I’d not been labeled an “addict” at the outset. Would my daughters be home today? Or would I merely have had a slightly more comfortable courtroom hanging?



Philadelphia Colleges Are Using Trump’s Opportunity Zones to Speed Up Gentrification

The West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua, where more than 1 in 5 buildings and lots stand vacant, seems like a classic picture of an economically distressed community. The median income is about $21,000, right at the poverty line for an average-sized family, and nearly 90 percent of neighborhood residents are Black. The community has been designated an opportunity zone, a program introduced by the Trump Administration in 2017 that allowed developers to avoid or reduce capital gains taxes as an incentive to invest in neighborhoods like Mantua.

President Trump describes the opportunity zone program as a prime example of how his administration has helped African Americans. This June, Trump claimed that since 2017 “countless jobs and $100 billion of new investment, not government investment, have poured into 9,000 of our most distressed neighborhoods anywhere in the country.” Opportunity zones have also been talked up by the few prominent African American Trump allies, including Sen. Tim Scott (one of the bill’s original co-sponsors) and HUD Secretary Ben Carson. Scott called opportunity zones “the first new, major effort to tackle poverty in a generation.”

Yet the program has been troubled since the beginning. Governors were permitted to select their state’s opportunity zones, with few criteria: 95 percent of the zones had to have a 20 percent poverty rate or a median income that is 80 percent or less of the metro area’s median income. Governors could also designate five percent of the zones in areas that are not low income. That latitude resulted in developments ranging from luxury apartment buildings to a ”superyacht” club being designated as eligible for opportunity zone tax breaks. Reporting from the New York Times, ProPublica and other news outlets revealed that friends and relatives of the president — including son-in-law Jared Kushner — stood to benefit from the opportunity zone tax break, and Treasury is already conducting a corruption investigation.

Governors looking to tout the success of opportunity zones in their state had incentives to pick areas with development projects already planned or underway — such as areas adjacent to or including a college or university. Adam Looney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, found 33 opportunity zones in areas where 85 percent or more of the population are enrolled in college. The zones meet the low-income threshold, but that’s because students don’t typically earn much while taking classes.

Designating these areas as opportunity zones because of students’ lack of income is a cynical use of an antipoverty program. Universities have been creating pockets of wealth near their campuses for decades, driving up rents without benefitting the long term residents who will remain long after each class graduates.

The average selling price of a home rose from $78,500 in 1995 to half a million dollars by 2018

In West Philadelphia, for instance, real estate investment in areas near universities has already changed the face of the historically African American neighborhood. West Philly is home to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. The University of Pennsylvania lured professors and students to the area with tactics that ranged from installing streetlights to offering low-interest loans to encourage faculty to buy in the area, and even created a new public elementary school to offer an option for an elite education in the neighborhood. Their tactics were so successful that the average selling price of a home rose from $78,500 in 1995 to half a million dollars by 2018. Drexel is now borrowing directly from Penn’s playbook, including building a new public middle school.

Drexel is just one of the 33 universities mentioned in the Brookings report. In the opportunity zone that includes Drexel, the poverty rate is 66 percent and 88 percent of residents are enrolled in college full time. Those statistics are reflected in college towns selected as opportunity zones across the country. The University of Southern California, surrounded by a historically low-income area of Los Angeles, is located in an opportunity zone with a poverty rate of 88 percent. A whopping 99 percent of residents, however, are full time college students. College students at small private universities (such as Liberty College) and behemoth public institutions alike (such as Texas A&M) are making their towns and neighborhoods eligible for a designation intended to help areas that have struggled with generational poverty.

Mantua and Drexel’s campus are in the same opportunity zone. A $43 million project dubbed the Village Square on Haverford got the go-ahead from the city in late 2019. It will bring 166 new apartments and townhomes to the opportunity zone in Mantua, with 80 units flagged as “workforce housing” with their selling price capped $230,000. That’s significantly higher than Philadelphia’s average home sale price of $188,000, and well out of reach for Mantua residents, whose income is less than half of the city’s median. The development will include 32 rental units of affordable housing, though there has been no word as yet about what definition of affordable the developers will use. The new development is located just a few blocks away from an off-campus housing complex marketed to students at Penn and Drexel.

Mantua residents have organized to have a say in how their neighborhood changes. They settled on a push to rezone most of the neighborhood as single-family housing, which they intended to prevent developers from buying up blocks of Mantua and converting the area into student housing for Drexel. They were successful, but the rezoning may not pay off in the long term. “It’s really a conundrum for the community to be in,” Wright said. “Multifamily [zoning] could potentially create naturally occurring affordable housing in the neighborhood because you can have apartments that might be available to lower-income or moderate-income people.” Focusing on protecting single-family homes means fewer available rentals — and higher rents.

That’s a problem, because people in the rental market may be the most vulnerable to changes in the housing market, according to sociologist Susan Clampet-Lundquist, professor at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s University and University City resident. Overall, changing neighborhoods are a mixed bag for longtime residents. The changes do bring more amenities to the area. The Village Square on Haverford, for instance, will include a supermarket and a coffee shop. Homeowners will likely see the values of their property go up. But the story is different for renters. When people leave a rental, they are unlikely to find another unit at a similar monthly cost and may have to leave the neighborhood, a process of indirect displacement.

“To me, the most important part is indirect displacement, a reduction in affordable housing,” said Clampet-Lundquist. “That creates the demographic change that you end up seeing.”

Mantua residents aren’t necessarily opposed to college students in the neighborhood, Wright said. They don’t begrudge the developers now showing up because they will turn a profit. They just want to make sure they can stay in their homes and enjoy the benefits of those changes, too.

Politicians ranging from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Joe Biden have proposed changes to opportunity zones, from defunding the program (AOC) to reforming it (Biden). Biden’s reform plans don’t include specific housing protections for people in opportunity zones such as Mantua. And existing local and federal programs could help with this particular problem, including rent control, Section 8 housing vouchers, and assistance programs for long-term residents that subsidize the inevitable rise in property taxes, Clampet-Lundquist said.

Using these programs to help in cities where opportunity zones meet skyrocketing real estate prices could limit the damage to low-income areas. So would an acknowledgment that incentives designed to maximize return on investment for the wealthy may not be the best way to address poverty.



How Child Care Became a Centerpiece of the 2020 Election

It’s been six months since it was reported that nearly half of the United States’ child care — 4.5 million slots — is at risk of disappearing. For half a year, child care centers and homes have either been struggling to stay open or closing altogether.

“We’re really holding on with raw knuckles,” says Jasmine Henderson, a child care organizer with Ohio Organizing Collaborative. “Ninety percent of working adults in the state of Ohio are working parents. If we lose child care, we pretty much can guarantee that we’re going to lose probably a large number of our workforce in Ohio.”

Nationwide, more than 42 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds have faced a negative career impact due to child care issues, personally or in their household. That burden is falling harder on women: In September, 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce, compared to 216,000 men. Millennial mothers in straight couples are three times as likely as Millennial fathers to name child care closures as the main reason they are unable to work.

The longer it takes for Congress to fund child care in a pandemic relief package, the worse the crisis becomes. As more programs close permanently, millions will be forced to leave the workforce, prolonging the recession and likely resulting in increased racial, geographic, gender, and educational inequities. “It’s about to get worse if we don’t infuse money into child care,” says Henderson.

Multiple bills have been introduced, but each one has stalled in the Senate. In early July, the House passed the Heroes Act, which included $7 billion in funding for the child care industry. It never got off the ground in the Senate, with both the White House and Senate Republicans criticizing it as too liberal. In late July, the House passed the Child Care is Essential Act, (S. 3874/ H.R. 7027), which would provide the $50 billion actually needed to stabilize the industry. While House members have urged Congress to include the act in any upcoming stimulus package, Senate Republicans continue to denounce House-proposed stimulus packages as too costly. October 1, the House passed an updated version of the Heroes Act, designating $57 billion in total for child care stabilization and to subsidize child care costs for families. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to bring it to a vote.

Before the pandemic, the child care crisis was slowly gaining attention as policymakers built the case for a publicly-funded child care system to replace the underfunded patchwork that exists today. In 2017 and 2019, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, (S.568/H.R.1364), which would provide low-income families with free child care, limit what middle-income families pay, build more centers, and support livable wages for early educators. During the 2020 primaries, several Democratic candidates made child care the centerpiece of their campaigns, from Elizabeth Warren’s universal child care plan to Kirsten Gillibrand’s Family Bill of Rights.

72 percent of young voters want Congress to provide funds to child care providers

The pandemic has turned the demand for reform into a rallying cry for parents, providers, and advocates, with countless articles and prominent figures demanding a better system. If lawmakers do not address the now-deepened crisis, it is unlikely that they will remain favorable with their constituents, especially those belonging to younger generations. The Center for American Progress [Editor’s Note: TalkPoverty is a project of the Center for American Progress] found that 72 percent of young voters want Congress to provide funds to child care providers who are facing financial ruin during the pandemic.

Even after this immediate crisis is resolved, a long-term solution to rising child care cost will remain an essential issue. Survey data from Next100 and GenForward reveal Millennials and Gen Zers named the cost of child care — alongside student loan debt and lack of affordable housing — as a key factor affecting Millennial and Gen Z decisions to have children.

This is at least in part due to how poorly the current system serves many populations. Pre-pandemic, Black, Latinx and Indigenous families were paying larger percentages of their paychecks to afford limited child care options, and were more likely to experience job disruptions due to problems with child care. Furthermore, the child care crisis was already disproportionately affecting children with disabilities; and, pre-pandemic 60 percent of rural families were living in child care deserts.

“Let’s be clear,” Henderson states, “if you’re in the fight for racial justice and equity, [child care] is your fight…when we talk about the cycle of poverty and the intimacy it has with racism, sexism, et cetera, we are absolutely talking about [child care].” Whether politicians are courting younger generations or not, stabilizing child care and funding it properly is key to gaining greater support from racial and economic justice movements.

That extends to supporting early educators. The child care industry is 93 percent women, early educators are 2.5 times more likely than the overall workforce to be Black women and Latinx women, and 1 in 5 early educators is an immigrant. Early educators only earn a median of $11.65 per hour, with Black early educators earning an average of 78 cents less per hour than white early educators. More than half of all early educators live in families that rely on public income supports, such as food stamps. Even pre-pandemic, Henderson says, “Providers were already tired. Most of the parents were already overworked.”

As early educators and families continue to do everything they can to care for children in the face of this crisis, it cannot be underscored enough that lawmakers need to intervene urgently and substantially with federal funding. If they don’t, this crisis will only escalate.

As of now, providers meeting pandemic public health requirements are facing an average of 47 percent cost increases — costs too high for providers to shoulder alone and even higher than what most families already cannot afford. A National Association for the Education of Young Children July survey of nearly 5,000 child care providers revealed that without support from Congress, two out of every five respondents — and half of child care businesses that are minority-owned — are certain that they will close permanently. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation survey found that approximately one in five working parents remain uncertain if they will be in a position to return to their pre-pandemic work situation due to a lack of child care.

With the industry on the brink of collapse, and the economy struggling to restart without it, the time to delay is gone. Henderson made the stakes clear: “Now, there’s this urgency to survive.”



Amy Coney Barrett Could Determine LGBTQ People’s Access to Adoption

A week into Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination hearings for the United States Supreme Court, some distinctly controversial themes have emerged, including her views on abortion — a particularly hot topic for the court given the current president’s promise to overturn Roe v. Wade — and her long-time opposition to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, which is one of the first major cases that will be heard before the court this fall. But one impending Supreme Court case going largely unaddressed will have major implications for LGBTQ families and the U.S. foster care and adoption system. If Barrett is confirmed on Monday, she will be seated on the Supreme Court in time to hear it.

This November, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which will decide whether foster and adoption placement agencies have the right to use their religious beliefs as an excuse not to comply with nondiscrimination protections.

In 2018, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS), the city’s child services department, stopped referring prospective foster and adoptive parents to Catholic Social Services for certification and oversight after a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed that the agency was actively discriminating against gay and lesbian couples for religious reasons. When Catholic Social Services refused to change their stance on licensing queer foster parents, the city allowed their foster certification contract to lapse; the subsequent lawsuit, which is now pending before the Supreme Court, claims that the city violated their religious freedoms by ending their contract for this reason.

Barrett has expressed a number of beliefs in her public life that suggest bias against the LGBTQ community. She was a signatory on a letter to the Catholic leadership expressing commitment toward “the significance of sexual difference and the complementarity of men and women…and on marriage and family founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman.” She described the application of Title IX protections to transgender people as a “strain,” and has openly opposed marriage equality. She was also faculty for the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, which is run by a law firm whose executive director recently argued for reestablishing criminal penalties for consensual queer sex.

Fulton is not the only way in which LGBTQ rights within the foster system have been questioned this year. An executive order issued by President Trump in late June, titled “Strengthening the Child Welfare System for America’s Children,” does not directly address the upcoming Supreme Court case, but it does seek to solidify the rights of faith-based organizations to work in the child services field, and to clearly solidify their First Amendment rights to engage in this work — the very argument up for debate with the Supreme Court.

The order states: “This guidance shall also make clear that faith-based organizations are eligible for partnerships under title IV–E of the Act (42 U.S.C. 670 et seq.), on an equal basis, consistent with the First Amendment to the Constitution.” It is this same brand of messaging that has surfaced repeatedly in Barrett’s opinions related to LGBTQ rights, and on the rights of the Catholic Church to exact its views on society at large.

“It’s really critical and important to note…the language used,” said Alexandra Citrin, senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy. “The language in the Executive Order might appear harmless, but what we’ve seen from this Administration is consistent undermining of certain communities including those who are LGBTQ+, Black, immigrant, etc. and prioritizing who they believe should be foster and adoptive parents. We are likely going to see guidance that emphasizes partnerships for faith-based organizations — including those that use federal dollars to discriminate.”

That creates anxiety for LGBTQ families, who have only recently gained the right to foster and adopt. It was not until 1997 that the first state in the country, New Jersey, officially allowed same-sex couples to adopt statewide. Florida was the last state to overturn its anti-gay adoption policies in 2010.

The concerns that LGBT adults have about whether or not they’re going to be discriminated against have not gone away

“The concerns that LGBT adults have about whether or not they’re going to be discriminated against have not gone away,” said Stephanie Haynes, executive director of Philadelphia Family Pride, which is a co-appellee in the Catholic Social Services case. “You can imagine families in same-sex couples would decide not to become foster parents at all because of the risk of being turned away, not only because they do not want to subject themselves to that but also for families with kids already, they would involve their kids in discussions about the possibility of having foster kids in the home, and want to protect their kids from that possible discrimination from the foster care process.”

LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents are not the only queer group who face discrimination in the foster system, though they have received the most attention and study in the field. LGBTQ youth, for example, remain overrepresented in the child welfare system, and are at heightened risk for homelessness. And one study of low-income Black mothers found that those who identified as lesbian or bisexual were 4.19 times more likely to lose custody of their children than heterosexual Black women, a population already subject to racial disproportionality within the system.

Nancy Polikoff, a professor of Law Emerita at American University Washington College of Law, said that discrimination “can be obvious, as in not recognizing who the child’s family members are, but it can also be more subtle.” She cited a case in Kansas in which a lesbian mother was told by her case worker, who was employed by the faith-based agency St. Francis Community Services, that she needed to be “fixed” so that she would not spread her queerness to her child. Ultimately, her parental rights were terminated. While her orientation was not cited as the reason that her children were removed from her home, interactions between her and the case worker indicate that it likely played a role.

Similar concerns exist for transgender children. “We have had a number of cases where parents who have, in particular, trans children end up having their child removed because they are supporting their children’s gender identity,” said Cathy Sakimura, family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case. “We recently had a case where a very low income mother lost all of her children; they were all removed because one of her children was gender non-conforming…There really wasn’t anything else other than some vague allegation about the home being dirty, and all of the testimony — everything that was presented — was all about the child and whether the child was given feminine clothing.”

“There are great faith-based organizations that partner with child welfare agencies and do it well; the problem is there are some faith-based organizations that discriminate…against what foster parents they will license, which can limit who can be licensed – for example, if there is only one licensing agency in the community, an aunt might not be able to be licensed to care for their niece if the agency doesn’t agree with her identity. And, it also raises into question how these are supporting the diverse identities of youth in foster care,” said Citrin.

If Barrett’s confirmation is successful, her placement could tip the Supreme Court in the direction of anti-LGBTQ policymaking. The ruling on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia will undoubtedly have dire impacts on children caught up in the foster system, but a broad enough decision could also open the doors for discrimination in any social service setting that contracts with agencies that cite their religion as an excuse to discriminate, including homeless shelters and food banks. It is impossible to predict how Barrett will vote on the case; however, several of her past actions showcase clear bias.

The case is currently pending before the Supreme Court, and arguments are set to begin just after Election Day. In the meantime, Catholic Social Services is still contracted with Philadelphia DHS to conduct case management for system-involved families of origin.





New Jersey, Birthplace of Welfare Family Caps, Has Finally Repealed Them

Four years before President Bill Clinton signed legislation that he promised would “end welfare as we know it,” New Jersey started the process on its own. In 1992 it became the first state in the country to cut off additional cash welfare benefits for a family when they had a new child. Before the policy, a family would get an extra cash allotment to cover the needs of their new child. Afterward, if someone enrolled in the program had an additional child, they would receive no extra money.

It was explicitly enacted in an attempt to keep poor women, and particularly poor Black women, from having more children. “What this does is give welfare recipients a choice,” Wayne R. Bryant, the former New Jersey Democratic Assembly majority leader who came up with the policy, said in 1992. “They either can have additional children and work to pay the added costs, or they can decide not to have any more children.” He later bragged that the policy had led to an “astounding” drop in the birthrate among women on welfare. In advocating for the family cap, he described “123 blocks where there are no legitimate males” in his city of Camden, by which he meant “men who can rightfully take their place in that community,” thanks to the fact that welfare has taught “all the wrong values.” The family cap, meanwhile, “reinforced the ideas of self-responsibility and investment in the future.”

It’s a “terribly racist and classist and misogynistic policy,” said Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “It’s a poor baby penalty.”

But the policy quickly spread nationally after New Jersey enacted it. Republicans even included a pledge to “discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by…denying increased [benefits] for additional children while on welfare” in their 1994 Contract for America, the precursor for welfare reform. The language never made it into the final version, but 22 states took the initiative to create family caps anyway.

As of September 30, New Jersey is no longer one of them.

“It’s huge. [New Jersey] is the mothership of the family cap rule,” Bartholow said. “It’s a beautiful day when the place that started it all can…reconcile what it’s done.” She noted that her state of California, which got rid of its cap in 2016, had originally followed New Jersey’s lead in creating one in the first place. “You have to wonder, what if [New Jersey] had never done it?” she said. “Would we have had it, would other states have had it?”

Despite Bryant’s early data, research in the decades since shows welfare family caps don’t work. There is no evidence that family caps influence how many children poor families have. It’s not even true that poor families receiving government benefits have huge families. In 1990, only 10 percent of households receiving cash benefits had more than three children. Today, they have an average of 1.8 children, the same as the average for the country as a whole. “The idea behind the law has been really debunked,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey.

What family caps actually do is deprive families of the extra cash they need to cover expenses that aren’t covered by other programs, such as diapers, baby wipes, and car seats. This just increases their poverty. Koubiadis has heard stories, she said, of parents who only had one extra diaper for their baby for an entire day, and others who couldn’t go to work because they couldn’t afford the number of diapers required to send their children to daycare. Now a family of three that had a child excluded from extra benefits thanks to the cap stands to see an extra $134 a month, according to calculations by Brittany L. Holom, senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP).

The campaign to repeal the state’s cap launched in 2016 with a report from NJPP that found that more than 20,000 children had been denied assistance since the cap was enacted in 1992. “Those are 20,000 children who, in the eyes of the program, essentially didn’t exist,” Holom noted. Even in 2018, the cap lowered benefits for 1,235 families. It also disproportionately impacts families of color: About 80 percent of the state’s children on welfare are Black and Hispanic.

The 2016 analysis “really helped highlight those issues for legislators who hadn’t thought about this law…since it was enacted in 1992,” Koubiadis said.

The report was released just months before California repealed its family cap, and coincided with other state campaigns, such as in Massachusetts. As advocates in New Jersey fought to repeal their family cap, the movement gained support from religious groups who were concerned about the impact the policy has on children. Ron Haskins, a prominent Republican architect of welfare reform, has since said he would be “hesitant” to support a family cap today because it “creates hardships for families.”

But even with a growing movement, New Jersey’s repeal hit roadblock after roadblock. Legislation sailed through the state legislature, but Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed it twice.

Then the state elected Democratic Governor Phil Murphy in 2018. In New Jersey’s last two budgets, the welfare cap was effectively eradicated when lawmakers included extra money to pay families the missing benefits for their additional children. Still, the cap itself remained on the books, meaning that lawmakers would have had to keep including that money each year to keep it from denying families money.

It’s a beautiful day when the place that started it all can reconcile what it’s done.

The coronavirus crisis, however, focused attention on the need to get rid of the cap once and for all. “There was a focus on other issues in the last couple of years, up until the pandemic,” Koubiadis said. But “with the exacerbation of these inequities, and certainly racial inequalities, legislators as a whole recognized that this was the moment to repeal this.” With the law no longer on the books, the extra assistance for poor families will be automatically included in each year’s budget.

“The tide certainly has been turning, especially in the last five to ten years,” Koubiadis said. “Other states certainly should take a look at repealing this law as well.” Holom noted this is particularly true for other nearby states, such as Connecticut, that still have a cap now that New Jersey and Massachusetts have done away with theirs.

The fact that “it has been undone in the place where it began will spread across the country and inspire the remaining states,” Bartholow said, “to finally end their use of this very flawed intervention.” She’s heard from people who are interested in doing the same in Tennessee and Virginia.

Perhaps, she suggested, Congress could even consider legislating it out of existence, barring states from having this policy at all. Congress might even go so far as to reconsider the other parts of the current welfare program that similarly punish poor people who need assistance, such as time limits that kick them off after a certain number of years, work requirements that deny benefits unless someone completes frequent paperwork proving they are either working or looking for a job, and pursuing children’s parents for child support money to pay back the benefits.

“These are really disgusting ways to think about a safety net,” Bartholow said. “I hope it can also inspire people to think about what else we have [done] wrong.”