Update: The bill passed the Senate Human Services committee Tuesday, but narrowly. The vote was three in favor, two opposed.
California is generally thought of as getting reproductive health policy right. In January, the state added abortion providers at a time when clinics elsewhere are fighting restrictions that would have them shut down. But when it comes to poor women’s ability to choose whether and when to grow their families, California has some catching up to do. Since 2002, eight of twenty-four states with a maximum family grant, also knows as a family cap, have repealed the laws that created them, citing concerns that they’re not effective. California—with its progressive image and all three branches controlled by Democrats—is a holdout.
The policy does what its name suggests—caps the number of people in a family who can receive cash benefits through CalWORKS, the state’s welfare program. If a mother already has a child when she applies for help, that child will be covered assuming her application is approved. But if she gives birth down the line, that baby is out of luck. The approximately $120 per month that child would have received if she had already existed at the time of the application is denied the family. (That’s right, just $120 a month. As Grace Meza-Betancourt, a 38-year-old mother whose family has been affected by the cap, put it when we spoke yesterday: “What makes people think you’re having babies just to get aid from the government?”)
In the twenty years since this exclusion of additional children from CalWORKS was put in place, it’s had no impact on the state’s birth rate, according to a 2013 report from the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law. Women receiving CalWORKS benefits generally have one or two children, which puts them in line with other families in the state.
State Senator Holly Mitchell is advancing the fight to repeal the policy. Today, the bill she authored, SB 899, gets its first vote of this year’s legislative session. Today’s committee hearing is preparation for what some see as the real test. On May 1 the bill goes to the budget committee, where lawmakers will take a closer look at the price tag. If it passes, the state could expect up to a $220 million increase in CalWORKS grants in the first year after the cap is removed, according to a legislative analysis. Mitchell introduced a similar proposal last year, and that bill’s death was attributed to its projected costs.