The welfare reform movement of the 1990s really was the political peak of the white backlash that began having political success in the mid-1960s, when the civil rights movement came to the north and west, outraging whites in those regions with demands for the end of de facto segregation, the end of police violence against African-Americans, equal pay for equal work. Politically, this went far to drive the rise of the conservative movement that elected Reagan in 1980 and the Republican Congress of 1994. By that time, reading the political tea leaves, many Democrats, most importantly Bill Clinton, came to support some of their political goals, primarily the terrible welfare reform bill that makes so many on the left so angry at Hillary Clinton today. Of course the times have changed, the conservative movement is throwing itself on the rocks of unhinged violence, and radicalism, and horrific governance in the states it controls. But nationally and in blue states, there is increased space to roll back some of the terrible parts of the welfare reform bills.
This takes us to California, which just eliminated a truly terrible law as part of its recent budget bill.
The “maximum family grant” was a key feature in the welfare reforms adopted by California and other states in the mid-1990s. The idea was that welfare recipients should not be given an incentive to give birth while on the dole, so the amount of aid they received would be tied to the size their family was when they started receiving benefits. If another baby came along, well, too bad. Unless mom was raped, a victim of incest or could prove that the birth control didn’t work, there would be no benefit increase.
It was a repugnant policy and, furthermore, it didn’t seem to work. Studies have found little evidence of a link between caps in benefits and reproduction. What we do know, however, is that the maximum family grant rule punished poor kids for the choices of their parents.
Good riddance to this bad policy. It should have been repealed it long ago. Like, the minute it was adopted. The cap on benefits was based on the apocryphal story of the “welfare queen” — a term popularized by Ronald Reagan as he was campaigning for president — describing women who gamed the welfare system by popping out babies and amassing a fortune at the expense of gullible taxpayers.
There were no doubt cases of welfare fraud; you can’t have a government assistance program without someone breaking the rules. But it would take a criminal mastermind to figure out how to get rich from CalWORKs, California’s welfare-to-work program. The average grant for a family of three is about $700 a month, with a lifetime limit on benefits of four years. Most beneficiaries also have to work or develop job skills.
These arguments never made the first bit of sense. Who would get pregnant just to have a slight increase in their welfare check? The cost of a baby is so much more than that covered. But middle-class Americans ate that up, believing there were cadres of black people in the cities who were overpopulating the world with their spawn so they could drive in their Cadillac to fancy restaurants and order a huge t-bone steak, paid for with the dollars of hard-working white people.
Good on California for getting rid of one law that oppressed the poor. There are so many more from that era in California and nationally, and of course new ones appearing everyday in such lovely and well-run conservative states as Louisiana, Kansas, and Oklahoma.