California should repeal ineffective ‘maximum family grant’ rule

Poor children are deprived of needed aid by a welfare law meant to discourage their mothers from having more babies, two state legislators argue.
Poor children are deprived of needed aid by a welfare law meant to discourage their mothers from having more babies, two state legislators argue. Detroit Free Press

In many aspects, the 1990s in America can be seen as a decade of fear – a race-based fear that an underclass was rapidly eroding our way of life.

Many believed alarming crime rates, welfare policies and sexual irresponsibility had pushed America to the brink. Something had to be done about “welfare queens” and “super predators,” the thinking went.

In response, state and federal legislators, Democrats and Republicans, passed tough-on-crime laws that filled our prisons well beyond capacity. “Welfare reform” slashed public assistance and, in too many cases, exiled Americans into extreme poverty.

We have begun to re-examine the wisdom, effectiveness and equity of our crime laws of the 1990s. It’s time we also review California’s “maximum family grant” rule, a discriminatory measure passed more than 20 years ago to coerce poor women to stop having children.

We can right this wrong in the next few weeks as the Legislature and governor finalize California’s 2016-17 budget.

The maximum family grant rule denies cash aid to children who were conceived and born when their families were already receiving assistance, unless their mothers were sterilized, using intrauterine devices for birth control, or victims of rape or incest that they had reported.

Enacted in 1994 under Gov. Pete Wilson, the maximum family grant rule was conceived on the false idea that poor women, particularly women of color, gave birth to children in order to collect more aid. Decades of research has debunked that notion. Family-cap laws like California’s have not had the intended effect on birthrates. Since 2002, six of the 22 states that enacted family caps – Minnesota, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Nebraska, Illinois and Maryland – have repealed them.

California has the seventh-largest economy in the world, but it also has the nation’s highest poverty rate, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. Yet, the state continues to enforce a welfare-to-work policy based on discriminatory and sexist stereotypes of families who need our help.

The maximum family grant rule does far more harm than good – succeeding only in increasing the impoverishment of babies, children and their families.

At $704 for a family of three in a high-cost county – the maximum monthly CalWORKs grant a family can receive – is only about 42 percent of the federal poverty level. A family of this same size receives $135 per month less when a child is excluded by the maximum family grant rule. This means living with just 34 percent of federal poverty-level income.

The goals of our welfare-to-work program are to protect children from the ravaging, lifelong effects of destitution and help families achieve self-sufficiency. Instead, our family-cap law punishes poor children for the means of their conception or birth, intrudes on the private reproductive decisions of women, and deepens the tragedy facing impoverished children and families.

Its repeal will provide additional support to about 130,000 of California’s neediest children.

Like our evolving views on the mass-incarceration laws of decades past, public opinions on poverty have shifted. In the mid-1990s – a time of economic growth and relative prosperity – Americans largely believed that a lack of initiative, not external forces, caused poverty. What a difference the great recession has made. Recent polls suggest a growing number of Americans believe poverty is caused by circumstances beyond an individual’s control.

California is committed to fighting poverty. We now have the fairest and most progressive minimum-wage and equal-pay laws in the nation. We are working to increase access to quality child care for the working poor. Repealing the maximum family grant rule is a critical and overdue next step.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Democrat, represents the 24th District. Contact him at State Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Democrat, represents the 30th District. Contact her at