For nearly 20 years, impoverished California women have faced a humiliating experience when they collect aid from CalWORKS, California’s welfare program.
Right now, a rule called the Maximum Family Grant caps the amount of aid a family can receive at the number of children they had when they first entered the program.
So, before they receive their checks, state administrators are required by law to ask them whether a child conceived while they were in CalWORKS was the product of rape, incest, or a failed long-term birth control or sterilization procedure, and if so, to prove it.
As an editorial in the Sacramento Bee about the so-called Maximum Family Grant rule put it, “Think about that: In order to get a measly $122 or so extra a month to feed and clothe your newborn, you have to have long conversations with government workers about your sexually abusive father or your rape or your IUD that didn’t work for whatever reason.”
Luckily, the rule may soon be wiped out, thanks mainly to the work of State Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Democrat representing downtown Los Angeles. Since joining the state’s senate in 2013, Mitchell has made its abolition a priority.
“It is a classist, sexist, anti-democratic, anti-child, anti-family policy whose premise did not come to fruition,” Mitchell told the Bee in February. “It did not accomplish what it set out to accomplish. So it’s appropriate to take it off the books.”
The rule was a culmination of the “Welfare Queen” hysteria of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era. But it’s dubious goal of changing the reproductive behavior of the poor was never achieved, because it was based on a faulty premise: According to the Public Policy Institute of California, most families on CalWORKS families have almost topped out at one or two children, a figure consistent with the birthrate of the state's general population.
But the harm such rules cause is real. A study by the Urban Institute showed family cap policies increase the poverty rate of mothers by 12.5 percent, and increase the deep poverty rate of children by 13.1 percent. And CalWORKs aid is already barely adequate: According to the Berkeley Law Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice, CalWORKs families frequently cannot afford to take care of their daily needs.
Welfare cap laws remain on the books in 18 different states, although six have recently repealed them.
Minnesota was the most recent to scrap it; it lasted just 10 years before an unlikely coalition or pro-life and pro-choice groups came together to help repeal the measure.
“The Family Cap has created undue economic pressure on poor families,” Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life Executive Director Scott Fischbach said in 2013. “It is time for the Minnesota Legislature to repeal this failed policy.”
The fate of Mitchell’s bill won’t be known for another few months. It’s actually the third time she’s attempted to push a repeal (she also tried to do so while serving as an Assemblywoman).
But Jill Adams, director of the Berkeley Center, says the campaign has never had this much momentum, and will force the hand of Gov. Jerry Brown, who stripped out funds for a repeal from the state’s budget earlier this year.
“You can’t hide,” she said. “You’re going to have a bill on your desk.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.