California Uncapped: Maximum Family Grant Repeal is a Win for Low-income Families

This week, California finally ended an unjust policy that was on the books for more than two decades. On June 27, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the state budget for FY 2017, which included a provision repealing the Maximum Family Grant (MFG), or “family cap” policy, which denied California families receiving TANF cash assistance an increase in benefits when they had a new baby. This change will assist the families of up to 130,000 additional low-income children in 95,000 families who were previously denied help under the MFG rule.

Of the 17 states that had family cap policies in place, California was the largest—and with the highest child poverty rate in the nation of 27 percent, California was home to 48 percent of all children living under family caps nationwide.  The states’ low-income families are disproportionately families of color, with these families most adversely impacted by the MFG.

California’s repeal recognizes decades of research showing that family cap policies do not lower birth rates, but overwhelmingly drive vulnerable families into deeper poverty.  It also recognizes the accumulating evidence that a family’s circumstances during a baby’s infancy have a major impact on the child’s long-term health, learning, and development.  In addition, the repeal rejects racist and sexist stereotypes of low-income women’s reproductive and economic choices.  The repeal will allow low-income families to receive much needed support during the especially vulnerable period of infancy and help families to buy necessities such as diapers and clothing not covered by other public benefits.

The MFG provisions were particularly problematic for young parents, because mothers under 18 were required to live with a parent or guardian in order to receive assistance, but barred from assistance if that parent or guardian had been receiving aid for the last 10 months.  The MFG also promoted the use of particular birth control methods, without adequate attention to side effects and risks of long term use, especially for young women.  For young parents in particular, the repeal of the MFG means that young first-time mothers will no longer be prevented from obtaining assistance because their parent or legal guardian is receiving assistance, and birth control will no longer be tied to receipt of cash aid. 

Like all new parents, low-income parents deserve to raise their children in dignity and health with the help they need to give their babies the best possible start.  The evidence about infant development suggests that this start in life is crucial not only for the families themselves, but for all of us. With this repeal, California has helped to create a more equitable start for more than 100,000 low-income children and their families and will most likely reap long-term economic benefits from a generation that has some added protection from living their earliest days in deep poverty.  This change is a victory for the advocates and lawmakers who have long fought for this repeal, but most importantly for California’s children and families.  Hopefully, California’s example will encourage the 16 other states that still have family caps in place to end these harmful policies once and for all.