Will State Policymakers Finally Repeal California’s “Family Cap” Rule?

Investing in public services and supports such as CalWORKs (California’s welfare-to-work program) and early care and education, among others, helps families who are struggling to make ends meet, which in turn supports children as they learn and grow. In recent years, state policymakers have made progress in starting to build back funding for these and other crucial programs following the severe budget cuts made during and after the Great Recession. In addition, this past June policymakers established California’s first-ever Earned Income Tax Credit, which will boost the incomes of working families with very low earnings. These policy choices will help low-income families and their children, but there’s still much more work to do.

More than one in five children in California live in poverty. Even though they make up less than one-quarter of the state population, children account for nearly one-third of Californians living in deep poverty. Further, poverty rates are higher among children of color. For example, the poverty rate for black and American Indian and Alaskan Native children is three times that for white children (see chart).

8.17.15 CA Child Poverty Rates by Race-01

Reducing child poverty is critically important, not only because of the disturbingly high number of children living in poverty, but also because poverty has a deleterious effect on children’s future, affecting their health and well-being in both the short and long terms. In fact, experiencing poverty during childhood increases the chance that these children will also be poor in adulthood.

If state policymakers fail to prioritize reducing poverty, they risk leaving a large number of children behind, with a disproportionate impact on children of color. So it’s especially concerning that one particular CalWORKs policy actually has the effect of disinvesting in California’s children. This is the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule, also known as a “family cap.” The MFG rule is a ban on providing additional CalWORKs cash assistance when a child is conceived and born while any member of the family is already receiving assistance.

Family caps became popular in the 1990s. In the middle part of the decade, when federal welfare reform granted states latitude in designing rules for the new state-led welfare-to-work programs, it became even easier to implement and enforce family caps. Since then, however, many states have repealed their family cap policies in light of the overwhelming body of research showing that — contrary to an oft-repeated myth — parents do not have additional children simply to boost their welfare checks. As we have blogged about before, the chief result of the MFG rule is that it drives families deeper into poverty.

Once again, state policymakers have the opportunity to eliminate the MFG in California and help parents with new babies afford diapers, food, clothing, and other necessities. During state budget deliberations earlier this year, the Legislature approved a spending plan that would have repealed the MFG, but this proposed change did not survive budget negotiations between the Legislature and the Governor. However, Senate Bill 23 (Mitchell), which would repeal the MFG, gives state policymakers another shot at rejecting this racist and punitive policy. SB 23 will be heard by the Assembly Appropriations Committee when they reconvene tomorrow. If approved in the Legislature, the bill would then go to the Governor’s desk for consideration.

— Kristin Schumacher