California Will Finally Ditch Racist, Sexist Welfare Rule

California state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D), who led the fight to repeal the state’s welfare family cap CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICH PEDRONCELLI
California state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D), who led the fight to repeal the state’s welfare family cap CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICH PEDRONCELLI

For more than two decades, any poor mother enrolled in California’s cash welfare program was penalized for giving birth to a new baby. While she would get additional money to cover the children she had before enrollment, the state refused to give her more for the new child. Known as the Maximum Family Grant Rule (MFG), the state’s policy is one of many that were explicitly adopted after welfare was reformed in the mid-90s as an attempt to curb the family size of poor women, often women of color.

Now California is finally ditching the law.

Tucked into the state’s budget is a measure repealing the MFG rule, and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has said he’ll support it. The budget passed off the floor of the state legislature late on Tuesday evening.

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Once the policy is gone, 93,000 families will benefit from an extra $138 a month for each child that had previously been exempt, on average, according to an estimate from the state Department of Social Services. In total, the repeal is estimated to cost the state about $220 million more a year in welfare benefits, but lawmakers will eventually cover that cost through an account that doles out inflationary increases in welfare benefits.

“No child should be treated differently under the law simply because they were conceived and born while their parents were poor,” Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate at Western Center for Law and Poverty who has been involved in the push to repeal the rule, told ThinkProgress in an email. “Now they won’t.”

California is just the seventh state to repeal a welfare family cap since they went into effect two decades ago in 22 states, joining Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. Still, 12 other states give families no extra money if they have additional children while enrolled in welfare, while two others have flat caps that give families a set amount no matter the number of children they have and still two more reduce benefits for additional children. In 2012, 58,000 families’ welfare benefits were reduced by a family cap policy.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

California’s is particularly egregious, however. It was explicitly adopted as an attempt to reduce the number of children born out of wedlock to women on welfare. At the time, then-state Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R) called giving families additional benefits for additional children “perverse” and said, “This practice usurps the role of husbands and drives men away from their families.” It also includes an exemption for children conceived due to rape, incest, or the failure of certain forms of birth control, requiring women who seek the exemption to share incredibly intimate details with a case worker — it’s the only state to require women to discuss birth control methods as part of enrolling in an entitlement program.

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Despite California lawmakers’ intentions, there is no evidence that family cap laws have an impact on birth rates. The MFG rule also played on the false idea that “welfare queens” were having more children just to get more benefits. Yet people who are enrolled in welfare have the same size families as those who aren’t enrolled. Instead, there’s strong evidence that all family caps do is increase poverty.