California is punishing low-income people for having children

Two decades ago, the California legislature implemented a policy meant to control the reproductive lives of low-income people, mostly women of color. Under the “Maximum Family Grant” rule, California families that had received welfare assistance in the past 10 months were not eligible for an increased grant if they had another child. The most shameful part of this racist and classist relic of a law? It still exists.

The policy was based on the concept of the “welfare queen” who does everything she can to cheat the system, including having babies in order to make money off of welfare. But anyone who can do basic addition knows that this is about the worst business plan ever, and not how most people use public assistance. The welfare queen was a myth created to demonize poor women of color, and family cap laws like the Maximum Family Grant managed to capture that prejudice and turn it into of policy.

Supporters of family caps say that they deter women from choosing to have more children. But punishment is not enough to deter women from making the best decisions for the health and happiness of their families. Having children cannot be a luxury only for the rich. 

The policy is also deeply flawed in how it understands reproductive “choice.” Marginalized people have been denied reproductive agency for centuries through rape, sterilization, and now restrictive laws which deny them access to the abortion or pregnancy care they need.

The Maximum Family Grant rule frames healthy pregnancy and parenting as a privilege, not a right. The only exceptions to this rule are when a woman becomes pregnant through rape and can “prove” it by reporting it to a health or government official, or when certain types of government-approved, invasive and long-acting birth control methods fail. (And you can bet that for women who decide they do not want to carry out the pregnancy, the government will not be funding their abortions.) The rule does not address the fact that being low-income creates direct barriers to successful family planning.

Studies show that family caps do not reduce the number of children women have. What they do is deepen the poverty rate of single mothers and children. In fact, California now has one of the worst rates of child poverty rates in the nation under the Maximum Family Grant.

Essentially, this policy punishes women for being low-income, but does nothing to help them escape the cycle of poverty. Thankfully, California lawmakers are currently working on their third attempt to repeal the policy. Hopefully the other 15 states where family caps exist will follow suit and do the work of legislative bodies, not legislating bodies.

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Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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