Using a Two-Generation Lens to Tackle Harmful Policies: California’s MFG

Applying a two-generation framework to lifting families out of poverty requires addressing the needs of children and parents together as a family. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has the potential to be a critical two-generation program for low-income families but too often fails to live up to that potential.  One of the keys to success when considering two-generation systems change is to identify and end harmful policies that impact multiple generations in a family.

Unfortunately, California’s Maximum Family Grant (MFG) policy, also known as a “family cap,” has been harming low-income families for more than two decades.  Passed in 1994 and implemented in the context of 1996’s federal welfare reform legislation, the MFG limits the amount of cash assistance that families can receive under TANF by denying an increase in aid for a new baby if anyone in the family (adult or child) has been receiving cash aid for the 10 months prior to the birth of that baby.   The few exceptions to this rule require proof that the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or of the failure of long-acting birth control methods. There is only a short list of eligible methods–one of which has not been available for over a decade.

The provisions of the MFG rule are particularly problematic for young parents.  

  • In order to receive aid, mothers who are under the age of 18 must live with the maternal parent/legal guardian, adult relative, or in a group home.  If that same adult, however, has been receiving aid for the last 10 months, the young parent is not eligible for aid for her baby. 
  • If the young mother decides to live with the parent or legal guardian of her child’s father, she must be married to the father in order to receive cash assistance.
  • The MFG promotes the use of particular birth control methods, especially for young women, without adequate attention to side effects and risks of long-term use. 

The discourse around the MFG and similar laws has been largely driven by stereotypes, assumptions, and a lengthy history of government-sanctioned efforts to control the bodies of poor women of color.  The law was passed based on the pejorative concept of the “welfare queen,” which suggests that women have babies while on welfare in order to collect more cash assistance.  Although this stereotype has been repeatedly debunked, equally pernicious assumptions question how recipients use their cash aid; these assumptions persist despite evidence that families typically use cash for necessary expenses such as diapers that cannot be purchased with other forms of assistance.  Given that 70 percent of low-income women in California are Latinas, the MFG disproportionately impacts women of color.  Young parents ages 15-24 have a poverty rate of 33.9 percent, compared to a poverty rate of 18.7 percent of all parents in California. MFG’s legacy has played a significant role in California having one of the nation’s highest child poverty rates. 

California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ), in partnership with other advocates and State Senator Holly Mitchell, are supporting efforts to overturn California’s MFG.  An attempt to repeal the MFG through legislation failed in 2014 because of concern about budget implications.  Attempts last year addressed the repeal using both legislation and the state budget, but the proposal was tabled in negotiations under veto threat.  In the current year, advocates are continuing to pursue a two-pronged approach, seeking to address the repeal both through the budget process (which is currently in negotiations) and in legislation (SB23).

As CLRJ advocates argue, all people should be able to “raise their children in dignity and health,” and young parents in particular should not have to keep “paying” for the “mistake” of becoming pregnant.  California’s MFG has implications for multiple generations, and the societal costs of children growing up in deep poverty are well-documented.  California and the sixteen other states that continue to impose family cap policies should stand with advocates to end these policies that double the harm for low-income families, especially for young families and families of color.