Masked in political rhetoric, the image of the “welfare mom” pulses with stereotype. These stereotypes persist even after the start of federal caps for assistance that were written into law when “welfare as we know it” was reformed in the 1990’s.
There are currently 15 states in the U.S. including California, that have maintained “family caps” - denying additional benefits to families who have more children and who have received aid in the 10 months prior to the child’s birth.
The legislative history of the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) policy shows it was aimed to discourage “welfare queens” from “gaming” the system and having additional children to receive more benefit dollars. Such policies ultimately punish the child being born. To insinuate that a woman would have a baby for about $120 per month strains common sense and borders on the absurd while endangering the life of both the impoverished mother and the baby in the womb.
Of the 15 states that maintain the family cap, six are in the process of eliminating the regulations, The average CalWORKs grant is only $464 per month, placing a family of 3 at 29 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. In short, there is a tiny portion of the State’s poorest citizens receiving aid, which is not enough to meet even basic living costs.
Under the MFG, women already on assistance who become pregnant will feel forced to have an abortion or, at a minimum, substandard prenatal care. As Pope Francis has pointed out, we are called to be responsible parents. When we fail in that responsibility, however, the consequences should not fall on our children.
And who exactly is this mother that would have additional children to garner about $120 a month under the MFG managed by CalWORKs?
“Women get categorized: you get and keep an image of what someone looks like,” commented Lisa Sweet, Director of Sweet Beginnings Family Resource Center. Sweet, a former registered nurse and adoption facilitator has worked with and mentored numerous young mothers to find them needed resources, including assistance with adoption placement plans if the need and desire presented itself.
Diana (not her real name) was one of three daughters of a mother who struggled with mental health issues her entire life, describes Sweet. Diana had never held a full time, regular job, making do on odd jobs as well as fraudulent tax returns, a scam devised by her sisters. The illegal activities ceased after her first baby was born.
Luckily, Diana was able to get into a comprehensive recovery program that enabled her to earn her high school diploma while in a homeless shelter that provided childcare. By all definitions, she was a tremendous success and outstanding program graduate. Her portfolio for a potential employer included certificates for these accomplishments as well as sturdy and enthusiastic references.
However, at the end of the two-year term with the recovery program and Cal Assist Diana could still not find a job and became homeless again, living in an abandoned house that had no electricity or running water with her two-year-old baby. Luckily, Lisa and her team were able to locate another shelter for Diana who still receives a small check each month.
She continues to fight for self-sufficiency and a full-time job while caring for her small child.
Mothers who rely on welfare have a variety of faces, different needs and each, uniquely different stories as to the paths that brought them to their situations. The key is to help them reach forward. And the stories of their lives in the future will be as varied too.