The California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids Program (CalWORKs) is a key part of California’s safety net for low-income families with children. As the name of the program indicates, CalWORKs provides critical support and services to families with children, and nearly four in five Californians who receive CalWORKs assistance are children. Yet, CalWORKs’ Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule — a type of rule commonly known as a “family cap” — does just the opposite. The MFG denies additional cash assistance to families with children who are conceived and born while any member of the family is receiving assistance. A current legislative proposal — Senate Bill 899 (Mitchell) — would take California in a positive direction by repealing CalWORKs’ MFG rule, which has been in place for nearly 20 years. The bill will be heard by the Senate Human Services Committee tomorrow, April 8, at 1:30 pm in Capitol Room 3191.
Although the MFG was designed to limit the number of children born to women receiving cash assistance, research from California and other states with family cap rules shows that the existence of a family cap does not affect women’s decisions to have children. Moreover, other research illustrates that family cap rules plunge vulnerable children deeper into poverty by denying additional assistance to newborns and their families. For instance, research shows that the percentage of children living in deep poverty — less than 50 percent of the federal poverty line — increased significantly in states with a family cap rule.
How did we get here? Many states rushed to implement family cap rules in the 1990s, both before and after welfare reform, and 24 states have had a form of a family cap rule in place at some time. However, more recently a number of states such as Illinois, Nebraska, and Oklahoma have repealed their family cap rules. As recently as 2012, California was one of just 17 states (see map) that still imposed this punitive rule on low-income families receiving cash assistance.
In the many years that California has had the MFG rule, it has not once been amended to reflect changes in how California provides assistance to low-income families. Attempts to repeal or amend the MFG in 2007 and 2011 were unsuccessful due to concerns over how to pay for the minor cost of covering additional children in CalWORKs. Today, California’s fiscal condition is improving, and this opens the door for another look at policies that undermine efforts to assist low-income children and their families.
One in four children live in poverty in California. We know that poverty exposes vulnerable infants and children to a variety of stressors that may impact their physical and mental health. Further, the effects of poverty can extend into adulthood with economic repercussions for the individual and the state. The consequences of continuing the state’s flawed MFG rule are dire — for children, their families, and the state. SB 899 is good policy for California and its children.
— Kristin Schumacher