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California: Stop Punishing Poor Families!

by Maya Paley

May 29, 2014 | 10:24 am

Over one million children living in poverty in California rely on CalWORKS, the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids program, for cash assistance each month. But California is one of 24 states that implemented a classist, prejudiced, and harmful policy in the mid-1990’s capping the amount of cash aid a family can receive. California is now one of 17 states left with this unethical policy and it is critical that our state legislators and Governor Brown repeal it. Unfortunately, on Friday, May 23, the Senate Appropriations Committee held the bill, meaning they are not advancing it for a vote on the Senate floor. But, we can still get it passed through the budget process (info on how to help is at the end of this post).

The Maximum Family Grant rule bars families from receiving additional assistance from CalWORKS if they have a child while having received aid for the ten consecutive months prior to the baby’s birth. There are exceptions to the rule such as in cases of rape, incest, or a contraceptive failure, but these exceptions inflict shame and embarrassment on the women who have to disclose such personal information. Exceptions, furthermore, are not the solution to the greater problem. The Maximum Family Grant rule infringes upon the rights of women and families to make their own reproductive decisions, has been proven to be ineffective in its goal of reducing the number of children born into poverty, and is explicitly prejudiced against poor families and children born into poverty.

When the MFG rule was passed as a budget trailer bill in 1994, according to a report released in April of this year by the staff of the State Senate’s Committee on Human Services, it was “based on the belief that increasing welfare grants for children born into AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] families may incentivize families to have additional children for the explicit purpose of increasing their monthly grant.” CalWORKS provides families with two children with a maximum of $515 per month. Repealing the cap would add an additional $123 per child to the family’s income, not something most working people would quit their jobs over. Diapers alone average around $70 per month, leaving barely enough cash for baby food, clothing, medications, and basic needs. The aid is for families who truly need financial assistance to get by. The belief that $123 per month would incentivize families to have more children is downright prejudiced. It perpetuates the stereotype that poor people in California, most of whom are Black or Latino, are lazy and just want to live off the state.

The MFG rule has not achieved its goal of reducing the number of children born into poor families. Instead, according to the Urban Institute, family cap or MFG rules actually increase the deep poverty rate of mothers by 12.5% and of children by 13.1%. The National Center for Children in Poverty states that poverty is the “single greatest threat to children’s well-being.” These threats include higher dropout rates, greater risks of behavioral and emotional problems, and increased risks for physical health problems like asthma, anemia, pneumonia, and childhood obesity due to a lack of access to healthy foods.

There is no research proving that women receiving welfare have more children than those who do not. In fact, the Guttmacher Institute has found that family cap policies has no effect on birth rates.  With over 80 advocacy organizations and local government agencies having expressed support for the passage of SB899, the bill that would repeal the MFG rule, none have publicly opposed it. There are concerns among some members of the legislature that the implementation of the law would be too costly for the state, with the first year’s increase in costs estimated at about $205 million. I was in State Senator Holly Mitchell’s office just a few weeks ago in Sacramento. Mitchell authored SB899. When asked about the potential costs of passing the bill, she said: “What we spend our money on in California reflects our values.”

Do we want to be one of the small group of states that continues to put children into deeper poverty, or do we want our spending to reflect our values of honoring and helping those less fortunate than ourselves? Do we want to be the ones saying to the rest of the country that we care for our poor and want to see our children succeed and come out of poverty? Or do we want to send the message that a poor child is not as important as the rest?

During what apparently was a “heated floor debate” in July of 1994, Assemblymember John Burton stated: “Welfare reform is getting people off of welfare and into a productive role in society with a job, not starving some kid who happens to be born into a family that is on AFDC.” Yet here we are twenty years later, starving kids who happen to be born into poor families, telling them that we, their fellow California residents, do not care that they have been born into poverty, telling their parents that we do not trust them enough to provide them with a reasonable amount of financial assistance for their situation, and shaming families until they end up in homeless shelters or out on the streets.

Californians: we cannot continue to consciously allow for such prejudiced policies to exist under our watch. Assemblymember Burton had insights in 1994 that I can only hope our elected officials have today—pursuing social justice, equality, and ending poverty in our time all depend on our ability to evaluate the impact of our policies and to change them when they are wrong.

To help get this bill passed through the budget, please call the following legislators and use the script below to urge them to repeal the MFG rule:

Call Governor Jerry Brown, Senator Darrell Steinberg, and Speaker Toni Atkins and urge them to repeal the MFG rule through the budget process.

Phone Numbers:

Governor Jerry Brown: 916-445-2841
Senator Darrell Steinberg: 916-651-4006
Speaker Toni Atkins: 916-319-2078

Here is a sample script for the call:

Good morning/afternoon, my name is [NAME] and I'm calling to urge you to repeal the CalWORKs Maximum Family Grant rule in this year's budget. This ineffective policy drives families deeper into poverty and harms the well-being of children. It also limits women's reproductive decisions and creates government intrusion into the privacy of families. Please repeal the MFG rule through the budget now!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Maya Paley is Director of Legislative and Community Engagement at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. The programs she works on include the annual Jewish...

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