Time to end outdated and humiliating welfare law

Sen. Holly Mitchell is pushing to end a state law that forces women who become pregnant while on welfare to prove it wasn’t because of rape or failed birth control.
Sen. Holly Mitchell is pushing to end a state law that forces women who become pregnant while on welfare to prove it wasn’t because of rape or failed birth control.

Poverty is an intrinsically humiliating condition. And nobody rises from hardship by being humiliated some more.

Yet California routinely belittles impoverished women in ways that have long since proved to be counterproductive, forcing them to prove that any child conceived while they were on CalWORKs was the product of rape, incest, or a failed long-term birth control or sterilization procedure.

Think about that: In order to get a measly $122 or so extra a month to feed and clothe your newborn, you have to have long conversations with government workers about your sexually abusive father or your rape or your IUD that didn’t work for whatever reason.

Even if the “maximum family grant” policy, as it is known, made sense – and it doesn’t – the walk of shame that women are put through in the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids program is reason enough to change the law.

Democratic legislators want to write the longstanding limitation out of the state budget, and for that, they deserve kudos. Doing so is expensive – close to an estimated $210 million more a year to cover all the children not covered by CalWORKs.

But limiting benefits to children creates problems that cost taxpayers more later. The grants are small – more a stopgap than anything approaching a living. And once all eligible kids are included, the state’s obligation isn’t likely to grow.

Why? Because average family sizes are shrinking, nationally and in California. And, contrary to the archaic assumptions of those who came up with the maximum family grant law, poor women don’t walk around pregnant for 10 months just to squeeze the welfare system. Motherhood is an achievement; even to those who can’t really afford it, it’s alluring because it’s a fundamental way to connect and have a place in the world.

In fact, the maximum family grant is worse than archaic; it’s based on actual misinformation. It arose from a 1970s crime story that was seized upon by Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on the tale of a Chicago “welfare queen” to prove that the welfare system was broken.

The welfare queen did exist, but, according to a 2012 exposé in Slate, the crimes of Linda Taylor scarcely exemplified any broad social issue. A sociopathic con artist, she specialized in identity theft and in marrying servicemen who later died, leaving her to collect their pensions.

When she died in 2002, she was linked with crimes far more serious than ill-gotten food stamps. But over the years, the Caucasian grifter somehow became a black ghetto mom in a Cadillac who pumped out babies for money.

By 1994, when congressional Republicans drew up the Contract with America, the welfare queen was a full-blown stereotype, and the maximum family grant, or “family cap,” was the GOP policy prescription to stop her. By 1996, states had bought into it all over the country. In California, the policy dates to Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration.

It’s time to do what many other states have done – unload it. Studies have shown it has no discernible impact, one way or another, on the size of low-income families. But more importantly, it doesn’t reflect our core values. This is California. Humiliation isn’t how we do poverty.