Oakland reproductive rights nonprofit advocates for repeal of Maximum Family Grant Rule
on April 5, 2016
Last Wednesday, March 30, a California Assembly budget subcommittee passed an action that may help repeal the Maximum Family Grant Rule (MFG), which since 1996 has restricted cash aid to women on the family welfare program CalWORKs. Repeal of the rule would lead to increased benefit payments to families under CalWORKs, which provides financial help and services to families in need.
Under the Maximum Family Grant Rule, if a woman has a baby ten months after becoming a CalWORKs recipient, she will not receive additional cash aid for the infant. Exceptions to the rule include pregnancies resulting from rape, incest, or the failure of specific types of contraception like an IUD, often considered a more invasive form of birth control.
Members ofACCESS Women’s Health Justice, an Oakland-based reproductive health organization that assists women seeking abortions, has co-sponsored SB 23, the bill to repeal the rule. If passed, SB 23 would repeal the exclusion of children born while a mother is enrolled in the program and prohibit the denial of aid to these families.
The text of SB 23 states that the bill is necessary to protect “infants born to families receiving CalWORKs from experiencing lifelong cognitive impairments due to the toxic stress of deep poverty and to ready those children for participation in California’s public school system,” as well as reinforce reproductive and privacy rights. The bill is also co-sponsored by the East Bay Community Law Center, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, the ACLU of Northern California, the County Welfare Directors Association, and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice.
Melanie Garza, public policy and training coordinator at ACCESS, attended the hearing along with other advocates. “I can imagine someone thinking: I don’t have enough money to have another child,” she said. “Something that contradicts what we believe is reproductive justice is this idea that you need to be of a certain income level, a certain class, to have a child, to make that decision.”
The nonprofit works to guide women—often low-income and underserved clients—towards resources and information on family planning, abortion and prenatal care. Their main service is the ACCESS Healthline, a phone line that women can call for consultation. A large network of volunteers takes these calls to ensure that women can access a safe abortion, from helping them obtain overnight housing to defraying the cost of the procedure.
Based on what Garza hears from the people who call the Healthline number, the Maximum Family Grant Rule is “definitely affecting or coercing folks—the majority of whom are people of color—into a state-determined decision on their reproductive lives,” said Garza.
“When we’re talking about wanting self-determination in our communities, we feel like the Maximum Family Grant Rule is absolutely preventing that from happening and keeping our communities within these systems of oppression, and absolutely failing, because there’s no way to get around or out of it,” she said.
Along with the bill’s other co-sponsors, ACCESS first partnered with State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) to repeal the law in 2013. In the past, Mitchell had worked for the Western Center on Law and Poverty along with the largest child and family development organization in California, Crystal Stairs.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” Mitchell said in reference to last Wednesday’s vote. “The Assembly Budget subcommittee has stepped up to the plate, yet again, to support elimination. We have done what the governor consistently asks that we do. A funding source has now been identified to provide ongoing critical support to our state’s poorest children. We hope he, too, will step up to the plate and eliminate this failed public policy.”
According to a Berkeley Law issue brief published in 2013 by a visiting researcher Elena Gutiérrez, around the time that Mitchell first introduced an Assembly bill to repeal the rule, underlying the policy is a belief that poor women will be incentivized to have fewer children if they don’t receive this financial help. The report says that the concept of a “welfare queen,” a pejorative term used to describe women allegedly gaming the welfare system, was embedded in the rule. The rule “diverts attention away from the real, structural sources of inequality and poverty in this nation,” wrote Gutiérrez.
The policy has affected thousands of families since its passage, preventing over 130,000 children from receiving aid, according to the report. Its effects have a significant racial skew: Almost two thirds of the households affected are Hispanic/Latino, and about one-fifth are African-American. The brief added that there is no link between welfare caps and births, and that women on welfare do not have more children than women who aren’t.
“For over 20 years now, the state of California has held in place the Maximum Family Grant Rule in an effort to curb childbearing among CalWORKs families. And, for over 20 years now, it has failed,” said Jill Adams, executive director of the UC Berkeley Law’s Center for Reproductive Rights and Justice.
At last weeks’ meeting, none of the panelists spoke against the repeal. “There is no current voice defending the policy basis for the Maximum Family Grant rule,” read the agenda for the subcommittee meeting.
But the cost of a repeal may be an issue for some legislators. According to the issue summary on the agenda for the subcommittee budget hearing, based on the average sum granted to a child through CalWORKs and the number of children in the program, the cost of repealing the MFG ranges from $187.8 million on the low end to $220.2 million, which assumes that all CalWORKs families stay in the program until their last child turns 18. Adult recipients are limited to 48 months of cash aid from CalWORKs, while children can be eligible to remain in the program for longer.
Along with the repeal, the budget subcommittee reviewed a 4 percent increase to the CalWORKs Maximum Aid Payment, which is the most aid that can be provided based on family size.
After hearing other panelists, such as Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, who spoke about the impact of deep poverty on children, the committee voted in favor of taking action to repeal the bill, which will send it to the next group for review. The vote concluded with a round of applause. A line of attendees formed at the microphone to state their support for the repeal, one man graciously thanking the committee for helping his family. Garza also went up to the mic to express support.
ACCESS plans to continue to advocate for repeal of the rule. “Working with a coalition whose sole function is to repeal the Maximum Family Grant Rule is challenging and exhilarating. I would say that the challenges lie within the desire to do more, and maintaining a balance for the sake of long-term strategy,” said Garza.
Garza says that ACCESS will continue to reach out to community members to get involved with advocacy. They may next direct their efforts towards bills like the AB 717 Diaper Bill, which aims to make diapers for infants and toddlers more affordable.
Wednesday’s subcommittee vote is just one step closer to a repeal after years of attempts by advocacy groups. The proposed repeal bill will still need to go through the Assembly’s full budget committee, then to a vote on the Assembly floor. The State Senate process after that is similar. If it passes both houses, the approved budget will need to be accepted or rejected by the governor.
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