Reproductive Rights and Anti-Poverty Advocates Succeed in Overturning Racist, Sexist Law in California

California Governor Jerry Brown, image credit: June, California Governor Jerry Brown repealed the sexist, racist welfare “family cap” rule, also known as the Maximum Family Grant Policy in California. The policy prevented welfare recipients from receiving more assistance if they have additional children while receiving benefits. This two-decade-old policy was finally repealed after a broad coalition of anti-poverty, reproductive justice, civil rights, and faith advocates came together to oppose it. California’s success is a welcome defeat of a policy that has punished low-income women for their reproductive decisions and pushed families deeper into poverty.
The family cap rule was born out of President Ronald Reagan’s complaint about the burden to the government by “welfare queens,” a stereotype of black women who do not work, but have children in order to collect handouts from the state. This offensive caricature would be codified into law in the early 1990s as “family caps” that prevented families from gaining more welfare assistance for any additional children they had while receiving assistance. It was meant to discourage poor women on welfare from having more children—a theory which has been disproven in studies. Although a provision was not added into the program established by federal welfare reform efforts in 1996, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, states were allowed to adopt their own family caps. Twenty-four states eventually did so, though seven states, including California now, have repealed the caps. (Two of those states do not have family caps, but provide the same level of assistance no matter the size of the family.)
California’s family cap intruded into women’s reproductive decisions and forced families deeper into poverty. California’s family cap provided exceptions for children born as a result of rape, incest, or the failure of two contraceptive methods—sterilization and inter-uterine device. This made the state intimately involved with women’s personal reproductive decisions , requiring women to discuss their sexual trauma and birth control methods with state case workers.  It is simply not in the state’s place to second guess a woman’s reproductive decisions or to choose to support some women’s decisions to have children but not others. At the same time, studies have shown that family caps push families deeper into poverty. Lifting the family cap will give affected households approximately $130 per month in additional aid, which could make a big difference for families on the brink of homelessness or who are struggling to pay for basic necessities for their infant children such as diapers and clothing . The county administrators of the welfare program in California estimates that repealing the family cap will help approximately 130,000 children. In all, the family caps in California kept women from being able to make the decision about whether and when to have children and to raise the children they do have with dignity and self-determination.
The repeal of the degrading family cap in California marks a big victory for women and families, restoring privacy and dignity for women in making their reproductive decisions while helping to lessen the impacts of poverty. Unfortunately, women and families in New Jersey are not so lucky:  in early July, Governor Chris Christie vetoed two measures that the New Jersey legislature passed to reform TANF, including a bill to eliminate the TANF family cap. Here’s hoping that the next governor of New Jersey and other states follow the model set by California rather than that set by Gov. Christie.