On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 350 N.J. Super. 152 (2002).
In this appeal, the Court considers whether a provision in the Work First New Jersey Act (WFNJ), N.J.S.A. 44:10-61(a), is unconstitutional because it"caps" the amount of cash assistance for families at the level set when the family enters into the State welfare system.
In 1987, shortly after giving birth to her first child, plaintiff Angela B. began receiving family Medicaid benefits in addition to a monthly allowance in the form of food stamps and cash assistance. Subsequently, in 1988, 1989, and 1995 Angela B. gave birth to three more children. She received an increase in combined welfare benefits for the two children born in 1988 and 1989, but due to the enactment of New Jersey's first family cap provision in the interim, she was unable to obtain additional cash assistance when her fourth child was born. Similarly, after plaintiff Sojourner A. gave birth to her first child in 1994, she began receiving Medicaid family coverage as well as monthly assistance in food stamps and cash payments. When she became pregnant with her second child in 1996, the State notified her that she was not eligible for an increase in cash assistance as her child would be born more than ten months after she had started receiving welfare benefits. When Sojourner A. became pregnant again in 1997 and 1998, she terminated the pregnancies in part because of financial difficulties. Both plaintiffs stated in depositions that the lack of additional cash assistance imposed an extreme financial hardship on their families.
In 1997, plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit against the New Jersey Department of Human Services (DHS), claiming that the statute violates New Jersey's Constitution. Plaintiffs contended that the statute was designed impermissibly to coerce the procreative and child-bearing decisions of plaintiffs by penalizing them for exercising their fundamental right to bear children. Plaintiffs also contended that the family cap violates the equal protection rights of certain classes of poor children based on their parents' reproductive choices and the timing of their birth. Plaintiffs and DHS filed motions for summary judgment. On December 18, 2000, the trial court granted DHS's motion and dismissed plaintiffs' complaint with prejudice, finding in part that plaintiffs had failed to submit any evidence that the family cap materially affects a woman's right to make procreative choices.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision on April 2, 2002. 350 N.J. Super. 152 (2002). The panel noted first that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals previously had affirmed a federal district court determination that the family cap does not violate the United States Constitution. Noting, however, that the New Jersey Constitution provides greater protection in some circumstances, the panel deemed the federal cases not dispositive. Applying the balancing test set forth in Greenberg v. Kimmelman, 99 N.J. 552 (1985), and Right to Choose v. Byrne, 91 N.J. 287 (1982), and acknowledging the fundamental nature of the right to make procreative decisions under the State Constitution, the panel determined that the family cap at best indirectly and insignificantly intrudes on that right. In part, the panel noted that the cap does not deprive the family unit of the benefits it is already receiving, and although no additional cash stipend is provided as a result of the new child, Medicaid coverage and food stamps are increased. Finding that the purposes of the statute -- reducing the welfare roles and putting welfare families on the same footing as working families -- are laudable objectives, the Appellate Division held that the family cap provision bears a substantial relationship to those legitimate and reasonable goals.
HELD: The family cap provision of the Work First New Jersey Act, N.J.S.A. 44:10-61(a), does not violate the equal protection and due process guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution.
1. In 1992, the New Jersey Legislature enacted the Family Development Act (FDA), which included a provision that denied an incremental increase in benefits for children who were born when the family was eligible for AFDC benefits. To implement that provision, the State obtained a waiver from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. In 1996, Congress replaced its Aid to Families with Dependent Children statute with a program that provided the states with the flexibility to implement welfare reform subject to a mandatory national welfare-towork feature designed to motivate welfare recipients to become self-sufficient. In 1997, the New Jersey Legislature responded to the federal initiative by replacing the FDA with WFNJ, N.J.S.A. 44:10-55 to -70. (Pp. 9-11).
2. Under WFNJ, the level of cash benefits provided to a family is based, with certain important limitations, on the size and need of the family. One such limitation is the family cap found at N.J.S.A. 44:10-61(a), which states that the level of cash assistance benefits payable to a family shall not increase as a result of the birth of a child during the period in which the family is eligible for benefits. The family cap does not apply to an individual who gives birth to a child fewer than 10 months after applying for and receiving cash assistance benefits, nor does it apply when the new child is the product of rape or incest. The primary purpose of WFNJ is to encourage employment, selfsufficiency and family stability. Toward that end, WFNJ allocates the savings achieved by application of the family cap toward a variety of programs aimed at developing adult welfare recipients' educational and vocational skills to enable them to get and keep stable employment. (Pp. 11-15).
3. Although plaintiffs bring this action under the New Jersey Constitution, when cognate provisions of the Federal Constitution are implicated, the Court turns to case law relating to those provisions for guidance. The extent to which statutory provisions are scrutinized under federal equal protection and right to privacy claims depends on the class of persons affected, the nature of the right implicated, and the level of interference. When a state statute directly impinges on a fundamental right or a suspect class, the provision is strictly scrutinized. When a statute impairs a lesser interest, the federal courts ask only whether it is rationally related to legitimate government interests. The rational basis test is applied when economic legislation, including statutes that establish benefit programs, is challenged. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals and the federal District Court for New Jersey have considered and rejected the same claims now before this Court. In part, the Third Circuit observed that it would be remarkable to hold that a state's failure to subsidize a reproductive choice burdens that choice. (Pp. 15-18).
4. In the New Jersey Constitution, Article I is the source of both the right to equal protection and the right to privacy. In evaluating such claims, the Court considers the nature of the affected right, the extent to which the governmental restriction intrudes upon it, and the public need for the restriction. Although that mode of analysis differs in form from the federal tiered approach, the tests weigh the same factors and often produce the same result. (Pp. 18-20).
5. Here, even assuming that procreative choices are influenced by the cap on cash assistance, the Court does not find that influence to be undue or that a new burden is thereby created. Working families do not receive automatic wage increases when additional children are born, therefore the family cap appears to do no more than place welfare families on a par with working families. Like most women in New Jersey, a woman receiving welfare assistance will likely weight the extent of the economic strain caused by the addition of a child to the family unit. Ultimately, however, the decision to bring a child to term or to have an abortion remains wholly with the woman. Moreover, DHS presented ample justification for the family cap, demonstrating that resources available as a result of the cap have been diverted to job training, child care, and other programs established and expanded under WFNJ. The goals of promoting self-sufficiency and decreased dependence on welfare are laudable; the focus on education, job training and childcare should advance those goals and, ultimately, result in improving the lives of children born into welfare families. (Pp. 21-24).
6. In respect of plaintiffs' argument that the family cap treats disparately those children born before the family begins receiving welfare benefits and those born ten month after the receipt of such benefits, the Court notes that the family receives additional food stamps and Medicaid benefits and that all of the children in the family unit share presumably in the total amount of cash assistance available, as is the case in other similarly situated family units. (Pp. 24-25).
7. This case is not about a woman's right to choose whether and when to bear children, but rather, about whether the State must subsidize that choice. The Court holds that the State is not required to provide additional cash assistance when a woman chooses to bear a child more than ten months after her family has received welfare benefits. The Court rejects plaintiffs' claim that the family cap provision of WFJN violates the equal protection and due process guarantees of the State Constitution. (p. 26)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, ZAZZALI and ALBIN and JUDGES HAVEY and KESTIN (t/a) join in CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ's opinion. JUSTICES VERNIERO and LaVECCHIA did not participate.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Poritz, C.J.
In this appeal, plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of a provision in the Work First New Jersey Act (WFNJ) that "caps" the amount of cash assistance for families at the level set when the family enters into the State welfare system. N.J.S.A. 44:10-61(a).*fn1 Although families in the assistance program are eligible to receive additional Medicaid and food stamp benefits on the birth of another child, the statute prohibits an increase in cash assistance benefits for any child born more than ten months after the family initially applies for and obtains such benefits. N.J.S.A. 44:10-61(a), (b), and (e).
Plaintiffs claim that the "family cap" violates the right to privacy and equal protection guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution. More specifically, plaintiffs allege that Section 61(a) impinges on a welfare recipient's right to bear a child and, if she chooses to have that child, denies her and her unsupported child equal treatment under the law.
A brief description of the two families before the Court provides context for our review of the constitutional claims raised herein.
In 1987, shortly after giving birth to her first child, plaintiff Angela B. began receiving family Medicaid benefits in addition to a monthly allowance in the form of food stamps and cash assistance. Subsequently, in 1988, 1989, and 1995 Angela B. gave birth to three more children. She received an increase in combined welfare benefits for the two children born in 1988 and 1989, but due to the enactment of New Jersey's first family cap provision in the interim, was unable to obtain additional cash assistance when her fourth child was born.
In 1994, also after bearing her first child, plaintiff Sojourner A. began receiving Medicaid family coverage as well as monthly assistance in food stamps and cash payments. When Sojourner A. became pregnant with her second child in 1996, however, the State notified her that she was not eligible for an increase in cash assistance as her child would be born more than ten months after she had started receiving welfare benefits. According to Sojourner A., she again became pregnant in 1997 and 1998, but terminated those pregnancies because of financial difficulties and because "she was not ready... for more children." By 1998, Sojourner A. was working five days a week and was therefore ineligible for cash assistance under WFNJ, although her family remained entitled to Medicaid and an increase in food stamps.
Both Angela B. and Sojourner A. have stated in depositions that the lack of additional cash assistance has imposed an extreme financial hardship on their families and left them without adequate food, shelter and other necessities. At the time of filing, Sojourner A. was receiving $322 in cash assistance, $163 in food stamps, and Medicaid benefits for her two children. Angela B. was receiving $424 in ...