The law passed two decades ago, with Democrats in charge of the Legislature: In California, a family that conceives and births an additional child while on welfare is barred from getting an increase in its grant.
Today, with Democrats still in the majority, the measure’s base of support is eroding. Advocates for the poor are mounting their strongest effort yet to repeal the so-called “maximum family grant” rule, a big-ticket spending item that could bleed into state budget talks.
Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, in her third attempt at abolishing the law, says it was based on the pejorative concept of the “welfare queen,” a woman who has babies while on welfare to collect more cash assistance. Instead of discouraging welfare recipients from having children, she said, it helped the state achieve the “dubious honor” of having the nation’s highest child poverty rate.
She points to a UC Berkeley brief on the topic that found such family caps don’t alter reproductive behavior.
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“It is a classist, sexist, anti-democratic, anti-child, anti-family policy whose premise did not come to fruition,” said Mitchell, the author of Senate Bill 23. “It did not accomplish what it set out to accomplish. So it’s appropriate to take it off the books.”
Others believe reinstating grant payments, totaling about $130 per child each month, will not lift aid recipients out of poverty.
Mary L.G. Theroux, senior vice president of The Independent Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Oakland, said she doesn’t dispute that the law did not prevent births.
“The opportunity cost of them having another kid is not going to stop them from doing it,” she said.
But she said financial constraints give growing families incentives to get help from charities, relatives or find higher-paying jobs.
“What these programs are doing is completely handicapping people from learning how to take care of their families and how to help their children have a better life than they do,” she said.
In many ways, the debate today mirrors the one held on the Assembly floor in 1994, when then-Republican Assembly Leader Jim Brulte urged his colleagues to pass a bill he described as the first step in a comprehensive welfare-reform package.
“When someone is on welfare for 20, 25 years, that is a serious problem,” he recalled in an interview. “And part of that was incented by a system where, frankly, some people could make more money not working than they could working.”
In debate over the bill, Democratic Assemblyman John Burton disagreed, calling it a cheap shot at the poor masked as a push for self-sufficiency. He was on the losing end of the vote.
Efforts to change the system continued.
President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, and Gov. Pete Wilson and lawmakers compromised on a state program called CalWORKs the next year. It stiffened work requirements and set time limits, sanctions, grant levels and eligibility requirements. Maximum family grants took effect in 1997.
In recent years, the growing number of families living in poverty has generated new discussion. Anti-poverty advocates have been joined by a range of others who question the way the law seeks to regulate birth control use.
It specifies that families must use certain forms of birth control – IUD, Norplant or sterilization – and must prove contraceptive failure to receive aid. It allows exceptions for children born as a result of rape or incest if reported to a health, social services or law enforcement official. The rule specifies that children born into families where any member drew government cash aid 10 months before a child’s birth are ineligible.
California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and others object to the government “using the threat of deeper poverty” if recipients don’t use contraception.
The current Assembly speaker, Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said reversing the policy is critically important to families, telling a recent women’s policy summit in Sacramento that the criteria are “invasive (and) insulting.”
Linda Wanner, associate director of government relations at the California Catholic Conference, said her group favors annulment, but for other reasons.
“With this bill, we have the opportunity to remove burdensome county processes, reduce the number of children living in poverty, and, more importantly, eliminate the incentive to terminate a pregnancy,” she said.
Some 24 states put in place family caps over the past two decades, according to the UC Berkeley Law Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice. Dr. Elena Gutiérrez, who authored the study in 2013, found that caps remained in 15 other states.
Targeting the rule in California has proved difficult. Former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, proposed a plan to phase it out and was stymied by the recession and budget crisis in 2007. Former Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, later unsuccessfully sought to exempt disabled children. Mitchell introduced bills that stalled in both houses and returned last year with a successful resolution to repeal it as soon as “legislatively possible.”
Lieber questioned whether revocation was being adequately prioritized by majority Democrats. “Now that the money is there, we need to see if the political will is there,” she said.
Indeed, much of the debate will hinge on funding. An analysis prepared last spring estimates that overturning the rule would cost about $205 million in the first year. Some 131,400 children are affected by the grant rule.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, has said he supports repeal, but he chaired the committee in which the bill previously was shelved. Last week, he unveiled a plan to reverse deep cuts to subsidized child care, another social services item that competes for scare resources.
Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said helping families in poverty is an important role for officials in government as well as people outside. The issue is whether repealing the maximum grant is the best use of money.
“Putting $200 million into an effective job training program or providing child care for working mothers would be a better use of resources,” Huff said. He pointed to a long list of other needs, including services for the developmentally disabled and foster children.
Vivian Thorp, 48, of Oakland said she could have used the extra help.
After losing her job at Walmart to an injury, she and her family lived in an abandoned building when the house they were living in was foreclosed on. She had a job, but money was tight.
When her second daughter was born, Thorp was told that the maximum grant rule would prevent her from getting additional cash assistance. She successfully appealed, arguing that she was not clearly notified of the law’s provisions.
By the time her third child arrived, Thorp said, she stole diapers for two years and stuffed food in her bag when she ran out of money at the end of the month. She remembers visiting a department store and swapping her daughter’s beat-up shoes with new ones. She said she was depressed and suicidal.
“I went from Walmart to welfare to Wellbutrin,” she said.
Thorp, now a legal advocate for the homeless and others down on their luck, said she earns a “working class” living. She’s been off welfare since 2011. The grant money she lost out on would have helped speed up her transition, Thorp said.
“To actually deprive a child of having the ability to wear clean diapers should be a crime, especially when a parent like myself was in a welfare-to-work activity and doing everything right – playing by the rules,” she said.
With the cannonade for repeal growing louder, Brulte, now the chairman of the state Republican Party, said his belief in the bill hasn’t changed. He brought up the measure at a recent dinner with former Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, where they addressed freshman members of the Legislature.
“I told them it was important to do what you believe is right and stay true to” themselves. “Principles don’t change,” Brulte said.
But, he added in his comments to the lawmakers, “Don’t think what you do will last forever.”
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.