Say you’re expecting your first child and struggling financially. You need cash assistance, so you apply through the state’s welfare program for low-income families. If you live in California, how far along you are in your pregnancy can determine whether you’re a candidate. Three months or fewer from your delivery date (or already parenting other kids) and you could be eligible immediately. But any earlier and you’re insufficiently in the family way to qualify for this family program. So you wait.
This wait can take an otherwise healthy pregnancy off course, advocates in California say, so they’re pushing for a law that would move the CalWORKs eligibility period up from the third to the second trimester. This week, they’ll find out whether legislators think state coffers can support the change, which wouldn’t extend the amount of time a family receives the benefit but would start the clock earlier. The additional cost is expected to be around $7 million.
A broad range of groups is supporting the bill, called the Healthy Babies Act, from California Latinas for Reproductive Justice to the California Catholic Conference. But the loudest voice in the effort to get it passed has come from the domestic violence prevention community. Service providers and activists committed to the issue say the law would especially help people facing violence from an intimate partner.
“I realized I was getting a lot of calls from women that were pregnant,” Mariya Taher, a social worker with WOMAN, Inc., told me. She helps cover the San Francisco organization’s twenty-four-hour domestic violence support line and is working with bill author Assemblyman Mark Stone’s office to pass the bill.
According to Taher, the bill addresses two pressing issues facing the women she works with: Pregnancy is often a time when abuse starts or escalates. A Centers for Disease Control review of studies finds a possible association between unintended pregnancy and abuse that supports Taher’s observations. A 2005 CDC report found that homicide was a leading cause of traumatic death among pregnant women and new mothers, particularly those who are young or black.
Advocates also say women stay often because they can’t see how else they’d survive. Taher says about a fourth of callers to the WOMAN, Inc. help line are surviving financial abuse, meaning someone is controlling their income, ruining their credit, not allowing them to work or otherwise keeping them dependent. For some, accessing the CalWORKs safety net means the difference between continuing to put their health and potentially their pregnancy at risk and being able to leave.
It’s all an interesting counterpoint to the debate earlier this summer about whether intact, married families are safer than those led by single parents. In June, an op-ed published on The Washington Post’s site argued that married, biological fathers are less likely to abuse people in their families, making women and girls in such arrangements safer than others. Critics convincingly challenged that the stigma facing single parents often keeps women in bad situations, making them even more vulnerable to abuse. Taher of WOMAN, Inc. agrees with those critics and has argued that that’s yet another reason why Californians need the Healthy Babies Act.
The state’s senate appropriations committee is expected to vote on the bill August 14.