Even after successfully applying for welfare, Vivian Thorpe was homeless for two years and unable to provide food, shoes, or even clean diapers for her three children. She had lost her job at Walmart due to an injury, and was trying to support her family of four on welfare dollars intended for two. She soon became depressed and suicidal. “I went from Walmart to welfare to Wellbutrin,”
Thorpe’s family is one of
93,000 in California affected by the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule. This mandates that families cannot receive additional payments for children born more than ten months after registering to receive money on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or welfare.
The rule was implemented in the mid-1990s as part of then-President Bill Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it.” In 1996, Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that withdrew federal funding for welfare programs and allowed states to implement their own provisions on one of the most disputed social programs.
Effectively a grant cap by family size, the MFG rule denies welfare recipients the money needed to provide housing, clothes, and food for a child—not exactly luxury items. However, in a victory for women and children, California lawmakers earlier this month hammered out a
$171 billion budget that included a $220 million provision to overturn the MFG rule and allow parents like Thorpe to have children without being pushed over the edge financially. A Crisis for Children
Not only had MFG disproportionately impacted women, but it also has not fulfilled its goals. In 2001, the Government
Accountability Office found no change in pregnancy rates based on the first few years of MFG, and in 2013, The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed that average family size is the same for welfare recipients and the rest of the population. So if the MFG rule does not prevent children from being born into poverty, what does it do? Well, it drove Melissa Ortiz to support her family of five at California prices with just $516 in welfare each month—less than $4 per person each day.
But the rule is still in practice in twelve other states, and it could be depriving children at their most vulnerable stages. According to
research conducted by the Russell Sage Foundation, many of the socio-economic discrepancies seen in educational achievement can be observed in children as young as four. Before even starting school, a child of high-income parents has heard 30 million more words than a child from a family receiving welfare has. The MFG rule only exacerbates that difference by denying parents the necessities they need to raise children, much less supplemental resources like building blocks and books. Getting Reproductive Justice
The only exception under the
MFG rule applies if a child was born as a result of rape, incest, or failed birth control. But bizarrely, the most common form of birth control, the pill, is not listed among the acceptable types of contraception. Depo-provera, IUD, and Norplant, the latter of which has been off the market since 2002, are the only forms of birth control that qualify. However, given that low-income women are less likely to have access to proper reproductive healthcare, the MFG rule ultimately cuts off money to poor women simply because they are poor.
Encouraging women to forego bodily autonomy in exchange for government money builds on an
ugly history of sterilization and is a major step backward in the reproductive justice movement. The notion that disincentivizing poor parents from having children will cut down on the number of children born into poverty further disregards the fact that all women—even poor women—have the right to determine when to have children. Rooted in Racism
When they enacted the MFG rule, legislators hoped to prevent women from leeching off the welfare program and getting rich on the government’s dime. Assuming that women exploit welfare programs as a get-rich-easy scheme derives from the archaic and racist stereotype of
welfare queens popularized by President Reagan, w ho suggested that black women conned the government out of thousands of dollars through the welfare program. Though there are a few recorded instances of people taking advantage of the welfare system, it is not a sufficiently common occurrence to warrant these harsh provisions.
Cover of The New Republic (above) shows the propaganda fueled by Reagan’s welfare queen stereotype: a black woman smokes a cigarette while holding a baby above the headline “Sign the Welfare Bill Now.” Source: Talking Points Memo.
According to Century Foundation senior fellow Andrew Stettner, some lawmakers saw women on welfare as unfit parents and irresponsible for bringing more children into poverty. In an effort to discourage these women from having children, they made having a family on welfare economically unfeasible.
In an effort to discourage these women from having children, they made having a family on welfare economically unfeasible.
“[The MFG rule] means that the children cannot get aid because the State wants to punish me and them—me for choosing to be a mom again while on welfare, and them for being born into poverty,” Ortiz
said in her testimony to the California State Assembly.
The extra $138 per month provided by welfare leaves little room for superfluous spending
given the USDA’s calculation that a child can cost up to a whopping $8,000 per year in California. And all signs point to this cost only rising: the price tag on childcare has increased nearly twofold relative to the purchasing power of a dollar since 1996. This means that families with young children need even more money to provide education and childcare than politicians in 1996 could have predicted, not less. As the Consumer Price Index for child-related goods increases relative to all other goods, welfare parents face an increasing financial hardship. Looking Forward
The MFG rule is discriminatory both historically and in practice, and it prevents government money from getting to the most vulnerable and needy children. But California is only the seventh state to repeal this policy, leaving behind twelve other states in need of urgent reform. Particularly given that many of these states installed
penalizing time limits, legislators can no longer argue that these women milk the system.
Though most of these states do not collect data on how many families the MFG rule shorts each month, the National Center for Child Poverty
estimates that more than 16 million children live in families with incomes below the poverty level. This suggests that overturning MFG in just a few more states could have a large effect.
Real welfare reform may only come when the remaining states with the family cap follow California’s lead in overturning the discriminating provision—particularly southern states that seem hell-bent on punishing low-income mothers. Unfortunately, this does not seem too likely for the near future at least as many of these states have spent recent years imposing restrictions on the use of
welfare money and investing thousands of dollars in fruitless drug testing.
But further welfare reform must also not be derived from a
narrative of shame surrounding welfare-recipients.
But further welfare reform must also not be derived from a
narrative of shame surrounding welfare-recipients. In her testimony advocating for the repeal of MFG, Ortiz spoke about the stigmatization of poor women:
“People think the worst of you when you are poor. They think you are less of a mom and that you are a bad mom if you choose to bring children into the world when you are poor. Even more insulting is the idea that poor women like me are controlled by money more than we are liberated by our emotions, experience, and sense of knowing what is right for our families.”
Cover Photo Credit:couple applying for United States Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP) at San Antonio Food Bank (SAFB) Outreach Office, USDA Flickr.