Days Numbered for Law that’s Pushed Children Deeper into Poverty

Blog post

It’s the most classist, racist and sexist law in California human services policy, and its more than two-decade run is closer to coming to an end.

Last week, the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services took action to repeal the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) policy in the CalWORKs program. Under this law, a child born into a family receiving CalWORKs assistance is not eligible for assistance unless the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or a failure in contraception.

The law is based on a thoroughly repudiated premise that poor women become pregnant to receive additional assistance. The only purpose the MFG rule has served is to push children deeper into poverty. Absent the MFG rule, a child would receive about $125 a month to cover basic needs such as diapers or food; certainly not enough to eradicate a low-income family’s poverty but enough to cover some basic needs and reduce toxic stress levels that we know are debilitating to children.

Research has confirmed and continues to show what toxic stress and poverty does to a child, including disrupting brain development, causing life-long mental and physical health problems and perpetuating the cycle of generational poverty.

Before the Assembly committee took the vote on Thursday, March 31, committee chair Assembly Member Tony Thurmond, shared that as someone whose family grew up on assistance, he was eager to correct the years of mistreatment of families living in “the deepest sectors of poverty.”

“We want to get away from the draconian thinking that has gone into these types of restrictions; the mean-spirited, stereotypical awful comments that were made against public assistance programs,” said Thurmond. “This is our opportunity to move forward.”

Taking a step back for a moment, how is it that California is one of just 16 states to still have a family cap on its books, despite what research and common sense say about the effect family caps have on the sexual, marital and reproductive behaviors of families receiving assistance?

The MFG rule and similar family caps around the nation came about in the 1990s, coinciding with efforts to change the federal welfare system. Myths about the “welfare queen” – that originated from the 1976 presidential campaign – re-emerged in public and political discussions about how the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children should be transitioned into what we have today, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. Offensive, deeply-held beliefs about poor women and families, particularly those of color, as irresponsible and needing to have their reproduction controlled was sadly not just popular opinion at the time – it also made its way into legislative policy.

Out of this context, a deeply divided California Legislature enacted the MFG rule into law in 1994. It was not implemented until 1996 upon passing of federal welfare reform, which gave states the flexibility to implement family caps.

Since then, advocates, including CWDA, and lawmakers have made numerous attempts to repeal MFG. Among them is Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles who has been a leading champion and has tirelessly educated the public and her peers about the rule’s racist, classist and sexist roots and its effect on families. At a convening last month, Sen. Mitchell said “the woman has not yet been born that would have a baby for an additional $122 a month,” adding if we want to help children who are living in poverty then repealing MFG must be among California’s top priorities.

At the March 31 hearing before the Assembly budget subcommittee, Jessica Bartholow with the Western Center on Law & Poverty asked committee members to take a look at the nearly 70 organizations who submitted letters of support urging the repeal of MFG. They are a “broad and diverse group” who have come together because MFG has insulted the poorest infants, children and family privacy for too long, she said.

“The insult is to us as a group of people in California that really believes everyone should have the same chance at opportunity and success, and we shouldn’t degrade that from the first breath. The Maximum Family Grant rule does that,” Bartholow said.

Frank Mecca, CWDA Executive Director, also testified at the hearing, and said the MFG rule has undermined the efficacy of the CalWORKs program – children and families are living at very deep levels of poverty, cost of living is so high and assistance grants are at levels that barely allow families to make it through the day without wondering where they will sleep the next day or what meals they will have to skip. It’s unrealistic to move people from welfare to work and children out of poverty when they are teetering on those edges and in and out of homelessness.

 “Very deep poverty is debilitating. The consignment of a generation of kids to that is criminal,” Mecca said. “If you want a program that is decent and gives kids a chance, and a program that gives parents a chance to move from welfare to work, then you’ll sign onto repealing the Maximum Family Grant. And when, not if, its repeal becomes the law of the land, it will be great day.”