Low-Income Children Need Public Support No Matter Who Their Parents Are

Summary of Illinois HB 6064Two republican state legislators in Illinois co-sponsored a bill that lit up my social media feeds this week and sparked an outpouring of fury about regressive ideas about family and cold-hearted attitudes about public assistance. The good news is that, at least in part because of all that criticism, one co-sponsor withdrew his support from the bill, and it has died a quiet death in the Illinois House, at least for now.

The fury over HB 6064 was well-placed. It would have punitively restricted state aid to any unmarried mother who would not or could not name the father of her child (unless she had the means to intentionally become a single parent through artificial insemination, in which case for some reason she got a pass). It did this by forcing a woman who could not or would not name a biological father to either submit her child to DNA verification of paternity or to list some other family member who would should some financial responsibility for the child. Without that information, a birth certificate would not be issued and neither the child nor the mother would be eligible for any public assistance.

A birth certificate is a bureaucratic document that serves to officially establish the identity of a new human being. Along with recording the date and location of that person’s birth, it registers the names of the parents. Legal parents and biological parents are not always the same, of course, and bureaucratically states are more concerned with who is legally responsible for a child, so birth certificates are amended when adoptions take place. Legal parents, whether biological or adoptive, are the ones with whom rest the responsibility of caring for the child, and they are also the ones to whom any rights or benefits related to the child accrue. In essence, in cases where paternity was not determined, Illinois’s HB 6064 would have forced adoption by a second family member (a grandparent, or an aunt, for example) in order for the birth mother and her child to be eligible for public assistance.

HB 6064, because of it’s impact on poor children, who are disproportionately children of color, was not only cruel but it was also racist, classist, and generally unjust. I’m glad that Rep. Wheeler withdrew his support. He should reject any bill that makes it harder for a family to get the help it needs in order to live. Attacks on family assistance are not new, of course, and nor are they limited to conservative Republican roots. Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act devastated public assistance in the 90s, and the undermining of support for low income families continues through Republican and Democratic legislatures and administrations.

Income inequality is increasing. About 22% of children are officially poor (for example, less than $15,930 for a single parent with one child, according to the 2015 Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines). Instead of seeking to reduce the number of poor children eligible for public assistance by forcing their families to accept unreasonable bureaucratic rules that reconfigure families by force, states should be expanding social safety net programs and providing for the individual economic security of all children regardless of family form. Children matter, no matter who their parents are.