News Law and Policy

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

Nicole Knight

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A California family-benefit rule that critics have long denounced as racist and sexist would be repealed under a 2016 budget deal reached Thursday by Gov.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.

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