California is Ending One of Its Most Sexist Welfare Policies

In a huge win for anti-poverty advocates, California lawmakers are poised to get rid of the Maximum Family Grant rule (MFG), a policy passed in 1994 that coerced women into having fewer children by depriving them of the resources they needed to raise them. The repeal is expected to benefit about 126,000 children in 93,000 families across the state.

Under MFG, women who were enrolled in the state’s CalWORKS program were denied additional money for children born ten months after they joined the program. As Juliana reported last year, California lawmakers adopted this rule based on the sexist and racist assumption that “welfare queens” were having children in order to cheat the system and get an additional $120 in benefits each month. Like forced sterilization, MFG represented a dangerous effort by the state to curb the right of low-income women of color to have children. And unsurprisingly — since people don’t have children in order to get pitifully small sums of money each month — the policy failed miserably and just made families poorer.

Vivian Thorp, a leading advocate in the successful push to repeal the policy, was one of the thousands of people harmed by MFG. As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

When her second daughter was born, Thorp was told that the maximum grant rule would prevent her from getting additional cash assistance. She successfully appealed, arguing that she was not clearly notified of the law’s provisions. By the time her third child arrived, Thorp said, she stole diapers for two years and stuffed food in her bag when she ran out of money at the end of the month. She remembers visiting a department store and swapping her daughter’s beat-up shoes with new ones. She said she was depressed and suicidal. “I went from Walmart to welfare to Wellbutrin.”

And that’s not all. Recognizing (in their own politically fucked way) that MFG was a terrible, punitive policy, conservatives exempted women who informed a caseworker that their children were conceived after rape or incest or following a failure of certain types of long-lasting contraception such as IUDs. This meant that low-income mothers were forced to choose between disclosing intimate details to a practical stranger or falling deeper into poverty. Unfortunately, this type of trade off is all too common: low-income people are often required to submit to degrading and intrusive lines of questioning in order to qualify for government assistance.

Repealing MFG is a big deal. But unfortunately, it’s just one example of noxious policies that sprung up in the welfare reform era. Only two years after MFG passed, President Clinton signed the “Personal Responsibility and and Work Opportunity Act” (PRWORA), which devolved federal control over welfare to the states in the form of a block grant with very little accountability. Funding for this Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant has not increased since 1996, and in some states fewer than ten families for every hundred living in poverty receive cash assistance.

But instead of correcting this imbalance, some states have used their welfare programs primarily as a mechanism to punish and shame people for being poor.

For example, under the theory that low-income people should feel miserable every minute of every day, conservative legislators in Kansas banned people who receive cash assistance from using their benefits to go see a movie or visit a swimming pool. States like Tennessee waste millions of dollars drug testing people who apply for benefits, despite the fact that welfare recipients are no more likely to use drugs than the rest of the general population. And because Arizona’s conservative-dominated legislature is more concerned with reducing the benefits rolls than reducing poverty, it has decreased lifetime limits on receiving welfare three times in the past five years. Residents are now only eligible for one year of cash assistance.

Even with the widespread evidence that welfare reform was an abject failure, Republican leaders like Paul Ryan want to apply the same approach to programs such as food stamps and housing assistance. While further empowering states may be a dream come true for spiteful conservatives, the fallout from MFG and welfare reform makes clear exactly why it’s a terrible idea.

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Alyssa Peterson serves as a Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence.  

Alyssa Peterson serves as a volunteer Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX.

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