For nearly two decades, California women who get pregnant while on welfare have been ineligible for more money based on the baby's birth.
But a Los Angeles Democrat is pushing to repeal that law, sparking hot debate over reproductive rights, privacy, and what society should demand of low-income families receiving public assistance.
Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell says the controversial law known as a "family cap" caters to a notion she considers offensive: Welfare women get pregnant to hike their monthly benefits.
"From my perspective, this is a child poverty issue," said Mitchell, who introduced Assembly Bill 271 last week.
Jessica Bartholow, of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said that current law "is a means of controlling the reproductive decision-making of very poor individuals in our state."
Opponents counter that taxpayers are willing to help poor families, but not without limits for parents who choose to have more babies when they can't afford those they have now.
"Part of the whole purpose of welfare as a safety net is to help people get back on their feet and get back to being a productive citizen," said Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee.
"Staying on welfare and getting pregnant turns that safety net into a hammock - and I wouldn't support that," Jones said.
California's current policy was implemented in 1997, a time when the state, under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, was cracking down on costs by cutting back on the welfare system serving families with nowhere to turn.
At stake in AB 271 is an increase in welfare benefits ranging from about $100 to $125 per month for each baby affected. The specific amount of the increase would depend upon family size.
Children's welfare benefits can be paid until a youth reaches 18, so the provision targeted for repeal by Mitchell can affect a low-income family's benefits for many years.
Family caps apply to basic aid for shelter and clothing, but they would not disqualify a child for medical, child care or food stamp benefits, said Michael Weston, spokesman for the state Department of Social Services.
Bartholow said that it makes no sense that a woman would get pregnant for an extra $120 a month because it is "really not enough to cover the basic needs" of an infant.
"Families who are poor have children for the same reasons that families who aren't poor have children - to complete their vision of what their families are," she said. "It's inappropriate and disrespectful for us to assume that their family-making decisions are any different than the rest of ours."
But Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, said the state can't expect taxpayers to provide a blank check for welfare spending. Current law sends a message that parents will be held accountable for their actions and that they ultimately must get a job and rely on themselves for support, he said.
"I don't think we should be encouraging families to be raised without the proper resources and structure and foundation of, hopefully, parents who can support them," Hagman said.
Two Sacramento women interviewed randomly Tuesday, each of whom said she once was a state welfare recipient, had differing views on AB 271.
Debra Reedy, 46, turned thumbs down.
I believe that if people have an incentive to get more money, and still stay at home and it doesnt cost them any more money to do that, they will continue to have babies that are not being cared for well enough to become viable citizens, Reedy said.
But Johneshia Daniels, 27, said a child in need deserves help, period. I think the kid should always qualify, no matter how many kids the mother has, she said.
AB 271 would apply to all parents currently in the state's welfare program, CalWORKs, thus restoring eligibility to an undetermined number of children. Payments would not be retroactive. The bill's financial impact to state coffers is not yet known.
The family cap now allows welfare increases for babies conceived while the mother is receiving benefits only if the birth was due to a rape, incest, or failure of a sterilization procedure or implanted contraceptive device.
Bartholow said the exceptions collide with personal privacy by requiring parents "under the duress of further poverty to declare how a child was conceived and their private contraception choices."
The County Welfare Directors Association has not yet taken a position on AB 271, but its director, Frank Mecca, said it is humiliating for welfare parents to have to prove eligibility for a rape, incest or contraceptive exception.
"It's ludicrous," he said.
Seventeen states have family caps on welfare benefits, according to a study last year by the Urban Institute.
AB 271, in its findings and declarations, contends that repealing the family cap is necessary to "protect the reproductive and privacy rights" of low-income families applying for welfare.
Many supporters of AB 271 fear that California's family cap can spark decisions to abort a child rather than be pressed further into poverty, though no conclusive statistics exist on the impact of such laws on abortion, Bartholow said.
Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville, said he has not yet read AB 271 but that increasing welfare spending could make California a magnet for low-income families and reduce funding for police, schools or other vital functions.
Lawmakers should think carefully before taking such a step, he said.
"I think welfare has become a way of life for many people, and that the entitlement is just encouraging them not to try to find a way to access the marketplace and be a productive citizen," he said.