News Law and Policy

California Bill Would Repeal ‘Classist, Sexist’ Public Benefit Rule

Nina Liss-Schultz

California lawmakers are once again looking to repeal a provision of the state’s welfare program that denies additional assistance to women whose family size increases while they are receiving benefits.

California lawmakers are once again looking to repeal a provision of the state’s welfare program that denies additional assistance to women whose family size increases while they are receiving benefits.

Passed 20 years ago amid Clinton-era welfare changes, the provision, called the Maximum Family Grant Rule (MFG), bars low-income women and families from receiving increases in welfare benefits, known in the state as CalWORKs, if they have another child.

The bill is meant to discourage low-income women, often people of color, from having children by denying them public assistance. Exclusions to the rule are made for cases of rape and the failures of certain contraceptives.

SB 23, introduced in December by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would repeal the the MFG Rule and prohibit the denial of increased welfare benefits based on the number of children in a family.

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“I call on my colleagues in the Legislature and Governor Brown to end the Maximum Family Grant Rule, which endangers the health and wellbeing of babies born into poverty by denying families the minimum CalWORKs benefit needed for infant care,” Mitchell said.

“It is a classist, sexist, anti-democratic, anti-child, anti-family policy whose premise did not come to fruition,” Mitchell told the Sacramento Bee. “It did not accomplish what it set out to accomplish. So it’s appropriate to take it off the books.”

Evidence suggests that family cap laws like the one in California don’t dissuade people from having a child. And what’s more, poor women don’t have more children in their families than women with higher incomes. This proves false the myth of the so-called welfare queen, who—according to those against strong benefits programs—uses public money to support risky sexual and economic decisions.

In 2013, the average CalWORKS family grant was $464 per month, “putting a family of three at only 29 percent of the Federal Poverty Level,” according to a UC Berkeley brief. The brief noted that family caps contribute to worse health and social outcomes for children. California has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the nation.

The California law has remained on the books for two decades, despite all the evidence against it and two prior attempts by state Mitchell to repeal it.

Mitchell is also seeking to expand CalWORKS funding by more than $200 million, a push that has the support of the state’s Democratic caucus this year.

SB 23 was passed by the state senate last week and is now being considered by the assembly.

News Law and Policy

California Takes Steps to Repeal ‘Unfair’ Welfare Rule Affecting 130,000 Children

Nicole Knight Shine

Known as the Maximum Family Grant Rule, the provision bars low-income women and families who have another child from receiving increases in welfare benefits under the state program CalWORKs.

A California family-benefit rule that critics have long denounced as racist and sexist would be repealed under a 2016 budget deal reached Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and key Democratic lawmakers.

Known as the Maximum Family Grant Rule (MFG), the provision bars low-income women and families who have another child from receiving increases in welfare benefits under the state program CalWORKs.

Critics have argued the rule denied much-needed assistance to approximately 130,000 of the state’s most vulnerable children. The repeal would cost the state $100 million in the first year, as the Sacramento Bee reported.

“CalWORKs was a critical program that helped stabilize our family on solid ground while I made that tough climb [toward self-sufficiency and empowerment],” said Bethany Renfree, former CalWORKs recipient and policy director of the State Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, in an online statement. “Repeal of this unfair rule will have deeply felt implications for all of the families who might have been denied help.”

The additional benefit for each child is an estimated $130 per month.

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Some 16 states have some form of the MFG rule on the books to deny increased benefits to growing families—often those of color.

California, where the rule has been in place since 1994, uniquely allows exceptions to the rule in cases of contraceptive failure. The exception applies only if recipients were using “approved” long-acting birth control—a provision critics have called an invasion of privacy.

As Jamelle Bouie of Slate reported in 2014, family caps—another name for these policies that deny families additional benefits if they have more children—were designed to combat the myth of the “welfare queen,” welfare recipients who bear more children to receive more aid.

Research has disproven this premise and also has suggested that family cap rules push families deeper into poverty.

A policy paper Elena R. Gutiérrez, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote for the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at the University of California at Berkeley debunks the notion that women on welfare have more children than do others. It notes that most CalWORKS families include one or two children, a figure consistent with the state’s overall birthrate. Although one national study suggested a link between family caps and lower birthrates, that effect occurred only in states that provided public funding for abortion care for low-income individuals, according to the paper.

Previous attempts to repeal the rule stalled in the state legislature, as Rewire has reported.

This go-round, the budget deal was backed by more than 130 groups, including ACCESS Women’s Health Justice; the American Civil Liberties Union of California; California Latinas for Reproductive Justice; the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice; the County Welfare Directors Association of California; the California Partnership; and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Last month, petitioners turned over 8,500 signatures to Gov. Brown, urging him to work with lawmakers to repeal the rule.

The budget act must still be voted on by the entire legislature and then signed by the governor.

Commentary Human Rights

California’s Minimum Wage Increase Is Not Enough for the Working Poor

Susy Chávez Herrera

Gov. Jerry Brown just signed a minimum wage increase into law. But if we really care about those living in poverty many of whom are Latinos and their children—the next step must be repealing the state’s "family cap" welfare reform that penalizes the poor for having children.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a law to raise California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, giving a much-needed boost to poor working families across the state. The Fight for 15 movement has been driven by a diverse coalition that includes unions, workers’ rights advocates, and poverty advocates, as well as workers themselves.

The new minimum wage law is a glimmer of hope for many of the working poor upon whom the state depends. But their livelihoods have been stunted during the state’s decades-long push for welfare reform. The fight against poverty must include the repeal of draconian laws that punish the poor.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles during the ’80s and ’90s, my family was part of the working poor. Although I lived a good chunk of my childhood “near poverty”—but not “in” it, according to conventional definitions—poverty definitely came knocking on my family’s door more than once.

Things were tight financially, though my father worked a full-time job at a condiment factory. He returned home five days a week with the smell of vinegar seeping from every pore of his body, the fumes spilling out of our old Nissan. On the weekends, he would make every attempt to beat down the smell by cleaning, washing, and scrubbing anything that had come into contact with him.

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The small amount of money my mother made taking care of other people’s children while trying to care for her own five children would not keep our family afloat. With two working parents, my family still depended on the weekly food handouts at our local church.

As the person who managed our household, my mother struggled to make ends meet. She finally lost that struggle the day my father came home with a frozen turkey in hand—his Thanksgiving bonus—and the news he had been laid off. Although the layoff was supposed to be temporary, there were no guarantees.

As an adult looking back, I am angered by the fact that poor children, parents, and women of color continue to exist on society’s margins with little hope of finding a respite. Today, more than two million children in California, including almost 70 percent who are Latino, live in poverty. This is exacerbated by the state’s socially conservative stance on welfare reform—a stance that’s in conflict with the state’s new minimum wage law.

For the last three years, California lawmakers, including Gov. Brown, have had the chance to help poor children by repealing the state’s Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule, the family cap program introduced and signed into law by former Gov. Pete Wilson (R). Latino and Black children bear the brunt of this policy, which denies additional funds for newborn children whose parents are already receiving benefits through CalWORKs, California’s welfare-to-work program.

Family caps essentially punish poor people for their fertility. In California, the MFG continues the state’s legacy of eugenics and its efforts to control poor women’s bodies. The policy has only helped push poor parents of color and their children into deeper poverty. Additionally, women who challenge the MFG are required to prove their pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or that one of the state’s listed pre-approved birth control methods failed. In California, as in many parts of the country, being a poor woman means the state will do its best to interfere with your reproductive decisions and society will shame you.

According to California Department of Social Services data, 57 to 60 percent of all households affected by the MFG are Latino households. Another 17 to 24 percent of affected households are Black. Perhaps not surprisingly, 25 to 33 percent of children affected by the grant live in Los Angeles County, with its high rate of child poverty. Another 31 to 39 percent live in the “Farm Belt” Central Valley.

As the oldest child, I understood the effects of poverty on a family at an early age. After my father was laid off, my mother was forced to seek government aid. It was a decision neither of my parents took lightly. My father is a proud immigrant and my mother a Mexican-American woman who grew up on the border. For my parents, the thought of taking government money to feed their children was filled with failure and despair.

I remember feeling the shame on my mother’s face pierce my skin like a needle as she stepped up to the cash register to pay for our weekly groceries with food stamps. The humiliation rushed through my veins as I helped her carry bags of produce, diapers, and milk home. Policies like the MFG exacerbate the shame society heaps upon the working poor.

No matter who you are or where you come from, everyone has needed a little help sometime in their lives. The best way to help hardworking and struggling California families is to repeal a classist, sexist, and racist policy whose effects are multi-generational and detrimental to hundreds of thousands of children. After the minimum wage increase, repealing the MFG will move California forward in the fight against poverty.