An 'Ugly Policy' Systematically Devalues Poor Children. One State Is Ready To Stop It.

By Bryce Covert 

In most states, when a family in need has a new child, their welfare benefits increase to cover the extra costs that come with a new family member. But 16 other states operate differently, limiting benefits after a certain number of children in the express hopes of discouraging poor mothers from having more children.

There’s no evidence that these limits have the desired result — in fact, people on welfare have the same sized families as those who don’t enroll, and there is strong evidence that these caps increase poverty. Yet only one state has an active campaign to repeal their cap, according to the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law. But the campaign in that state, California, may be close to victory.

California’s policy, the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) Rule, has been in place for more than 20 years. After 10 months of receiving benefits, families don’t get any extra money if they have additional children, although they get higher benefits for any children they had before enrolling. “Here, what we say is, if you come into the program with 10 kids, they all get benefits, but if you come into the program with one kid and have another kid, that kid gets denied,” explained Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate at Western Center for Law and Poverty. “The child exclusion law targets the child, targets children born into deep poverty, and suggests that they should never have been born.”

But advocates think this may be the year they finally get rid of it. State lawmakers had originally tried to do away with the cap in a budget agreement earlier this year by allocating additional grant money for families on welfare who have additional children. It was eventually dropped from the budget and is now a stand-alone bill. Last month, it passed out of a Senate committee for the first time.

“This is the furthest we’ve made it,” state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D), who has introduced legislation to get rid of the cap every year for three years, told ThinkProgress. “Now’s the time.” She noted that everyone in the legislature and the governor’s administration, including the governor himself, has been made aware of the issue, and some Republicans have even voted in support of repealing it. “I don’t think it’s a matter of policy,” she said. “I think it’s a matter of financial priorities.” Getting rid of the cap would mean California would have to spend more on benefits for families who no longer had them reduced.

Advocates also feel optimistic about the effort’s chances this year. “We feel like we finally have the attention of the governor,” said Bartholow, whose organization is one of the main sponsors of the repeal effort. She thinks Gov. Jerry Brown (D) wasn’t even made aware of the issue in the first two years of the campaign to eliminate the cap, but now she knows that he has been personally briefed on it. “I also believe that he would sign a piece of legislation repealing a Maximum Family Grant,” she added.

One reason they’ve gained traction is the coalition that formed around the repeal effort. “A big piece of our success [is the] framing of these issues around reproductive justice,” not just around anti-poverty efforts, Bartholow said. Organizations that are focused women’s economic security have highlighted the bill as a key initiative.

At the same time, however, her coalition has some strange bedfellows, like the Catholic bishops. By framing it also as an issue of “reproductive privacy” and allowing poor women to have children rather than seek abortions, religious groups have taken it on as well. “They had a lobby day, and this bill was at the top of their lobby day,” she noted. Other groups also prioritized it in lobbying, including doctors, Planned Parenthood, Jewish women’s groups, and others. The supporter list includes immigrant rights activists and unions alongside the California Catholic Conference and the American Civil Liberties Union of California. “So many groups of people have this at the very top of their agenda,” she said.

Another part of the wind at her coalition’s back is the fact that California’s policy is particularly egregious. It was explicitly adopted to curb the number of children born out of wedlock to women on welfare. Calling the previous policy of increasing benefits for additional children “perverse,” then-Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R) said at the time, “This practice usurps the role of husbands and drives men away from their families.”

It also includes an exemption for women who become pregnant while using certain forms of birth control — IUDs or sterilization — requiring women to disclose what they use with social workers. “There is no where else in state statute for any entitlement program where a woman is expected to walk into the office of a social worker and discuss either the success or failure of their chosen contraceptive method,” Mitchell said. “For that to be laid out in ink is offensive to me as a woman and offensive to me as a Democrat.”

“It’s got an ugly history, it’s an ugly policy,” Bartholow agrees. “I think it’s one of the worst policies in the country.”

But California is not at all unique. Twelve others also offer families no extra benefits if they have additional children while enrolled in welfare. Two others, meanwhile, have flat caps that give all families a set amount regardless of how many children they have, while two reduce benefits for additional children and one converts the benefits into vouchers instead of cash. In all, 58,000 families had their benefits reduced by a family cap in 2012.

All of these laws were adopted after welfare was reformed in 1996. Since then, there has been some improvement, as six have dropped them, the most recent being Minnesota in 2013. The effort to get rid of them, however, is slow, if not stalled beyond California. “In general, no new states have added them, but most states haven’t gotten rid of them either,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, policy coordinator at the Center for Law and Social Policy. The policies are “just hanging on.” Advocates in many states are also likely playing defense against a number of proposals that have cropped up to limit benefits for the poor.

Bartholow is hopeful, though, that if her coalition succeeds in California it will inspire advocates in other states. Her own efforts were inspired by a successful attempt to block a family cap from being enacted in Pennsylvania in 2012. “I would hope that if California is able to repeal ours,” she said, “that other people can learn from the experience.”