Twenty years ago this month, Assembly Bill 473 passed through the Legislature. The bill enacted a state law, still on the books, that denies government assistance to poor infants based on how and when they were conceived.
The Maximum Family Grant rule requires families to disclose their private medical records to prove that a parent was sterilized or using an intrauterine device, and that a child’s conception was an accident resulting from a failed sterilization or IUD in order for the infant to receive $128 per month in aid. There is an exception for children conceived by rape or incest, but it requires that a police report be placed in the child’s case file.
This policy was – and continues to be – strongly opposed by advocates for the poor, the Catholic community and women’s rights advocates, in addition to several legislators from both sides of the aisle. In fact, our coalition to repeal this law is perhaps the only one in the state with family-planning advocates and anti-abortion advocates working together.
While opposition has remained strong, a lot has changed since the bill was passed in July 1994.
Twenty years ago, our welfare program for poor families had no time limit on aid and had a maximum benefit equal to 80 percent of the federal poverty level. Now, adults are entitled to a maximum of 24 months of aid in their lifetimes, and the maximum grant is equal to only 40 percent of the federal poverty level.
The proponents of this law believed that if the state denied aid to a child born to a family already receiving public assistance, fewer children would be born into poverty. But 20 years of scientific research has proved that these types of laws do not lower pregnancy rates among welfare recipients or the number of children born poor. Instead, we have learned that this policy results in an estimated 7.4 percent increase in childhood poverty rates. .
In 1994, California had a child poverty rate of 28 percent. Today, it is only 23.5 percent, but it is still the highest child poverty rate in the nation. Twenty years ago, we did not know that the traumatic experiences of children living in deep poverty without basic needs being met could do lifelong damage to their coping skills and cognitive functions.
Decades of research reveal that child exclusion policies like the Maximum Family Grant rule are failed social experiments that increase child poverty and deep poverty and violate the basic principles of human and reproductive rights.
Next month, the Legislature has the opportunity to send a bill repealing this law to the governor’s desk. Assembly Bill 271, introduced last year by then-Assembly Member Holly J. Mitchell, was approved by the Assembly and is now in the Senate Appropriations Committee. But because Mitchell is now a senator, AB 271 is orphaned, without a principal author or much of a chance that it will find a new one and be passed out of committee.
In fact, nobody expects this to happen and our request has been called naive and a “Hail Mary.” I don’t disagree.
But if Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders got behind this unprecedented and bipartisan coalition to repeal a profoundly unjust 20-year-old law, they would not only help safeguard the lives of our state’s poorest children, but would demonstrate that we can unite unlikely allies and build bipartisan bridges on some of the most difficult issues in politics today: reproductive justice, privacy, poverty and inequality.
Sometimes long shots work out. When they do, they can bring us together as a community and inspire us to believe in something bigger than ourselves. With voter participation at record lows and inequality at its highest, Californians could really use something bigger than themselves to believe in. Maybe this is it.
Jessica Bartholow is a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.