California’s Maximum Family Grant law is an example of “family cap” welfare restrictions, a relic of a 1990s-era conservative belief that women were deliberately having more babies just to rake in more benefits, anointing themselves “welfare queens.” California Republican Party chairman Jim Brulte, then his party’s Assembly leader, pushed such a law through the legislature in 1994, when states still needed waivers from the federal government to impose these restrictions. Two years later, with the federal welfare program’s overhaul, states were relieved of the waiver requirement. Similar laws remain on the books in 15 states.
This year, State Senator Holly Mitchell, (D-Los Angeles), introduced Senate Bill 23, a repeal of the Maximum Family Grant rule, on the grounds that it has only driven poor women deeper into poverty, and done nothing to reduce the birth rate of women on welfare. That assertion has been supported by several studies, including one from the University of California, Berkeley and another from Cornell University.
This is not the first year Mitchell has floated a repeal of the Maximum Family Grant law. Twice before, she has authored bills that failed. Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, remembers last year’s fight as especially heartbreaking.
“The hearing was on July 3, the 20th anniversary of the bill’s passing,” she remembers. “It was only going to be a half-day in the Senate because of the Fourth of July parades.” Bartholow had spent two years working on the law’s repeal and was emboldened by a successful effort to block a similar law’s passage in Pennsylvania. She knew Mitchell’s bill had bipartisan support, so when an off-the-floor appropriations hearing was called, she let herself get excited. “I had a little hope in my heart,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be great if they surprise us on the anniversary?’”
But when she threw open the door of the committee room, she saw a familiar, disheartening sight.
“When you see business lobbyists with their feet on the table, you know they’re getting exactly what they want.” They were: The committee was about to offer a $420 million tax break to Boeing subcontractor Lockheed Martin as a way to sweeten Boeing’s federal bid to build next-generation bombers.
“Nobody asked how many jobs they’d create, or whether they’d be middle-class jobs,” says Bartholow. “They didn’t have to show studies, they didn’t have to bring in any analysis. I thought, ‘A single company gets $420 million, and a woman has to come in and prove she’s [been] raped to get $122 a month?’ It was one of my saddest days at the Capitol.”