California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown repealed one of the state’s most discriminatory laws and practices through the 2016-17 state budget deal. “The Maximum Family Grant rule stemmed from racist, classist, sexist stereotypes of women of color and affected generations of poor children…California is finally free of a failed oppressive law which disproportionately affected women of color and drove so many families into deeper poverty,” said Laura Jimenez, executive director of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice.
A newborn brings life and joy into a family but it also brings the need for diapers, wipes, clothes and more food on the table. At a time when some families are most financially vulnerable, the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule denied assistance to children born to mothers already receiving welfare assistance.
“I did not know that the MFG rule existed when I became pregnant with [my] twins or when I gave birth to them,” said Melissa Ortiz at a California Assembly Human Services Committee hearing in 2013. “We didn’t have money to pay for diapers, wipes, shampoos and toiletries…I am here to tell you that I am trying my best to be a great mom. I do not need to be punished for deciding to have children.”
On Wednesday, June 15, 2016, women and families across the state witnessed the official end of this 20-year discriminatory law and practice, as Governor Jerry Brown signed the $122.5-billion budget which includes funds to repeal the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) MFG rule.
“The Maximum Family Grant rule stemmed from racist, classist, sexist stereotypes of women of color and affected generations of poor children,” said Laura Jimenez, Women’s Policy Institute graduate and executive director of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice.
“California is finally free of a failed oppressive law which disproportionately affected women of color and drove so many families into deeper poverty,” continued Jimenez.
Around 13 percent of all children in CalWORKs households were impacted by the MFG rule—that’s 130,000 children. This repeal is a culmination of years of work from over 130 organizations including Western Center on Law and Poverty, East Bay Community Law Center, ACCESS Women’s Health Justice, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ), Black Women for Wellness (BWW), American Civil Liberties Union of California and the Women’s Foundation of California’s Women’s Policy Institute (WPI).
The Maximum Family Grant rule in California was implemented in 1997 in response to the “Personal Responsibility Act” of the Contract with America, a document released by the Republican Party during the Congressional 1994 election campaign. The act aimed to “promote individual responsibility … [and discourage] illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying [aid] for additional children while on welfare.”
This rhetoric was and is reminiscent of the “welfare queen” myth generated during Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign. Welfare queens were supposedly manipulative women who were taking advantage and profiting off of the welfare system. This myth and campaign strategy targeted women of color, in particular African-American women.
The MFG rule exploited a very similar and false notion of the sexually irresponsible mother who undergoes pregnancy and childbirth in order to receive the additional assistance for a new child, which, according to data from California Department of Social Services, amounts to no more than $130 per month.
Thus, women of color and low-income women were stigmatized despite the fact that in 2013 the Bureau for Labor Statistics reported that “average family size was the same, whether or not a family received assistance.” In a time in their lives when women and families are financially vulnerable and $130 would go a long way, being denied cash aid drove struggling families deeper into poverty.
“The MFG rule [made] poor children poorer, reducing the income of families with infants to less than 30 percent of the [Federal Poverty Line],” read the Senate Human Services Committee staff analysis of the rule. This analysis argued that a repeal was “necessary to protect infants born to families receiving CalWORKs from experiencing lifelong cognitive impairments due to the toxic stress of deep poverty.”
The only exceptions to the MFG rule were pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest or the failure of three specific types of birth control: an IUD, Norplant (an arm implant that is no longer on the market) or sterilization.
“These are very long-term forms of birth control and in the case of sterilization, permanent forms of birth control,” said Sierra Harris, who represented ACCESS from 2010 to 2016, currently works at the National Network of Abortion Funds and was a member of the Women’s Policy Institute team that led the efforts to repeal the rule in 2012 and 2013.
“When you have a policy that is basically forcing people to be sterilized, that’s eugenics,” continued Harris.
California has a dark history of involuntary, coerced or forced sterilization. Between 1909 and 1979, California alone performed around one-third of the nation’s total sterilizations, approximately 20,000 operations. Women of color, in particular Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, African-American and Native American women were disproportionately sterilized without their knowledge or consent, which was yet again rationalized by concerns of “extortion to ensure ongoing receipt of family assistance.”
Incarcerated women continued to be involuntarily sterilized until as recently as 2010: According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals.
There have been various efforts to repeal the Maximum Family Grant rule since its implementation two decades ago. In 2012, the Women’s Foundation of California’s Women’s Policy Institute fellows led Assembly Bill 271, sponsored by then Assemblywoman and now Senator Holly Mitchell. Mitchell and various partner organizations continued this work, with Senate Bill 899 in January 2014 and Senate Bill 23 in December 2014, ultimately fully repealing the rule in this year’s 2016-17 budget bill.
“It was important for us to see somebody from the community pushing [legislation] that will impact a hell of a lot of people in this same community,” Nourbese Flint, program manager for Black Women for Wellness, said of Mitchell, who represents the district where the organization is located. “It was a collective effort by a lot of reproductive justice and health rights organizations and the larger social justice movement. It was lovely to see how when women work together, big things can happen. It was the most collective push and force behind legislation that I’ve seen in a long time.”
Beyond the repeal of the Maximum Family Grant rule, many of the organizations involved are looking forward to diaper affordability bills such as Assembly Bill 492 (Gonzalez and Gomez), including legislation to end sales tax on diapers and a $50 monthly diaper stipend for low-income families.
“There are a lot of black and brown families that are still struggling. Even though California has bounced back [from the recession], we know that it hasn’t bounced back for everybody,” Flint said.
“We are hoping that …we will start lifting women, in particular women of color, out of poverty and really start attacking the poverty issues and economic disparities of California…it is the beginning and not the end of legislation to come through that is really trying to uplift some of our most vulnerable communities.”