Will California lawmakers repeal a policy that requires poor welfare mothers to prove they’ve been raped in order to receive aid for a newborn?
Holly Mitchell’s Assembly Bill 271 goes to Senate Appropriations at Sacramento’s Capitol this week
This week at the Capitol, lawmakers will either get rid of a decades-old law that denies welfare benefits to California’s poorest families if they give birth to additional children, or uphold what some say is a draconian policy that violates low-income women’s rights.
As it stands, a Republican law passed nearly 20 years ago mandates the state’s most impoverished mothers, if they welcome another kid into their home while already on CalWORKs, be denied additional aid—unless the mother can prove she was raped or was a victim of incest, or if either parent can provide a doctor’s note that their contraception failed.
“A woman has to make the decision to either abort [her pregnancy] or further impoverish her born children,” is how California Catholic Conference communications director Carol Hogan explained its impact on families.
On Friday, proponents of repealing the status quo hope lawmakers move Assembly Bill 271 to the Senate floor for a vote. The policy, introduced by Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, would lift the ceiling on aid (or the “maximum family gift”) to welfare-to-work families that give birth to more children. It would also eliminate what critics say is an invasion of privacy, namely asking mothers whether they were sexually assaulted, or if their intrauterine devices didn’t work.
Some activists call Mitchell’s bill the “The Diaper Law,” since it would give families about as much money each month as they would spend on diapers for newborns (about $120).
The state Democratic party has championed A.B. 271 as a priority bill this year, and Sacramento’s Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg supports it as well. Yet the bill is currently at a standstill, due to budget concerns, because restoring CalWORKs welfare grants could cost upward of $220 million next year alone, according to analysis.
The governor, for instance, has yet to weigh in on whether he views eliminating the law as a worthwhile expense.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s bill is one of those rare instances where pro- and anti-abortion groups see eye to eye. “We won’t want to give women an incentive to have an abortion,” said Kathy Kneer, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, adding that the law “singles out a small group of poor women for harsher punishment because they were responsible for an unintended pregnancy.”
The history of why California requires its poorest mothers to disclose themselves as rape victims in order to acquire aid for newborns dates back to 1994.
Planned Parenthood’s Kneer describes this era as a time where “the politics of poor bashing” were the norm. “There was this whole wave, which sort of grew out of the mythology of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens riding up in Cadillacs,” she recalled. Gov. Pete Wilson was a big part of stigmatizing low-income families, she argued, and later, even President Bill Clinton.
“Unfortunately, low-income women were sacrificial,” she said.
In 1994, then-Assemblyman Jim Brulte introduced Assembly Bill 473 to cap welfare aid and require rape, incest and contraception exemptions.
He and then-state welfare department director Eloise Anderson were instrumental in steering the bill onto Wilson’s desk. The argument back then was that a new law would discourage people from having more kids, encourage poor mothers to be more self-sufficient, and lower the state’s birthrate.
Then-Democratic lawmaker John Burton, who now heads the California Democratic Party, fought the bill, but the governor inked it.
Wilson is infamous for his comments on cuts to welfare, going on the record in 1991 that poor families would still be able to pay the bills and simply would “have less for a six-pack of beer.”
Today, the law impacts 143,300 California children, making them ineligible for state aid, even though they live in households that are below 40 percent of the federal poverty rate. “And it’s had zero impact on the birthrate,” noted A.B. 271 author, Assemblywoman Mitchell.
Meanwhile, the players who passed the bill back then remain major faces on the national Republican stage in 2013.
Brulte is head of the California Republican Party, Wilson was recently campaign chairman of Meg Whitman’s failed attempt to become governor, and Anderson serves as the head of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Department of Children and Families.
And in May, local Assemblywoman Beth Gaines of Roseville voted no on Mitchell’s bill to repeal the law, arguing that eliminating the law would be too costly in this era of budget cuts.
Secretary Anderson refused to comment on this story, and the CRP did not return calls.
On Friday, lawmakers will decide whether it’s worth the budget expenditure to send Mitchell’s bill to the Senate floor for a final vote, and then to the governor’s desk.
Its fate remains uncertain.
“We think it’s a good bill, because it gets rid of bad policy,” Sen. Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund told SN&R. On the other hand, “it’s not the policy of this bill” that’s keeping it stuck in committee, otherwise known as “suspense,” he explained.
“What’s at issue is the cost of repealing the old law,” Hedlund said.
Mitchell said that when you consider the various policies that address social welfare and the safety net for California’s poor, A.B. 271 is “the best investment of our public dollars.”
“Children born into poverty basically never catch up. It has a fundamental, mechanical, organic impact on their brain development,” she told SN&R. She noted that the state is using its budget surplus to reinvest in schools, but “we also have to invest in babies.”
Hogan, with the California Catholic Conference, insists that the costs are minimal. “If you hold it up to the over-$100 billion budget, it really does pale in comparison,” she argued.
Her organization is currently drafting a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown in hopes that he’ll speak out in favor of the bill. But the governor has been reluctant to spend his budget surplus this session, even on social-welfare programs.
“The hurdle is the governor,” Hogan said.
Some Capitol insiders, who prefer to remain anonymous, think the law has a chance. Others, such as Planned Parenthood’s Kneer, are less optimistic.
“I think it’s a long shot. It’s a lot of money, as the general fund goes these days,” she said.
“But it’s time to put this shameful policy to bed.”