Rocio Zavala is doing her best to keep her daughter from eating her coupons.

It’s 11:30 on a Friday morning and Zavala, 30 years old and unemployed, is sitting at a foldout table in her living room, snipping, sorting, and stacking the freshly clipped squares of paper, while cooing at 3-year-old Deysy. The mother’s hands are moving with a practiced swiftness, partly to keep her coupons out of Deysy’s grasp, but also because she is in a hurry. She, her fiancé, Deysy, and her 2-year-old, Franklin Jr., have only a few hours to finish all the shopping before the other five kids get home from school.

With those five kids crowded into one room and the parents and two toddlers sleeping bed-to-crib across the hall, that makes for cramped quarters in this two-bedroom bungalow in east Oakland.

And yet despite the seven clearly marked children’s gift stockings that still hang from the mantel, it wasn’t until January 1st of this year that the state of California’s welfare program, CalWORKs, officially determined that all of Zavala’s children—and not just three—were deserving of financial assistance.

Along with some 95,000 other families across California, the Zavalas have just begun receiving a larger monthly welfare payment thanks to the repeal of a controversial state law known as the Maximum Family Grant rule. Introduced in the wave of welfare reform legislation that swept the country in the mid-1990s—and designed to discourage mothers from having more children when they were already struggling to make ends meet—the rule barred all low-income families enrolled in welfare from receiving increases in assistance to care for any additional children.

The exception: If a mother could prove to the state that a child was not conceived intentionally. Acceptable explanations included the failure of one of four approved contraceptive methods (IUD, Depo-Provera, Norplant, or sterilization, but not condoms or birth control pills) or that the new child had been conceived as the result of rape or incest.

According to a Senate committee analysis, over 13 percent of all California children living in households receiving welfare were subject to the Maximum Family Grant rule.

Because Rocio Zavala was the mother of one son and one daughter when she first began receiving aid from the state, her CalWORKs cash grant remained frozen at a level intended to support two children—even as her family eventually grew by another five.

Opponents have long lambasted family caps as cruel and rooted in demeaning stereotypes about women in poverty. They also point to the wealth of academic research suggesting that these laws actually don’t affect family planning decisions for mothers on welfare.

Now the rule has been repealed and Rocio Zavala’s monthly welfare payment has gone up 51 percent—from $720 to $1,086.

On top of the family’s newly boosted CalWORKs grant, Zavala draws $800 in state disability insurance support to care for her daughter Deysy, who has Down Syndrome. She also receives food stamps and whatever money she can cobble together making party decorations in her living room. And though her fiancé is a landscaper, Zavala says that he hasn’t had steady work in months due to the rain.

All told, even with the larger aid grant, the Zavala family will still be living below the federal poverty line—$45,050 for a family of nine.

The extra few hundred dollars in aid won’t be enough to move the family into a bigger home in the feverish Bay Area rental market (Zavala says she is on a waiting list for the county’s housing assistance program) or to pay for childcare for the toddlers. To Rocio Zavala, the extra aid isn’t enough to make life easy, but it might make it a little less hard.

Rocio Zavala entertains her daughter Deysy while clipping coupons before a shopping trip. Photo by Penni Gladstone for CALmatters

“It helps me a lot to get the Internet for the kids because they need it for school,” says Zavala. “And it helps me financially with clothes for the kids—basically, to give them a better living situation.”

That, says Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, who has led a legislative attack against the Maximum Family Grant rule for years, was the point of repeal.

“The purpose of the program is to keep children from slipping deeper into poverty,” says Mitchell. But policies like the Maximum Family Grant rule undermine that goal and are based on “deep, inherent bias that exists about poor people and welfare recipients,” she says.

But when the fate of the Maximum Family Grant rule was being hammered out last June, the debate centered less around ideology and bias and more about the hard-boiled realities of the California budget.

According to an estimate by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the annual cost of repeal will be $220 million in 2017. As more exempted children enter the system, this is likely to increase to $250 million within five years.

To overcome Gov. Jerry Brown’s objections, Mitchell says that she and other proponents of repeal had to resort to some “creative financing.” Here’s what that meant: With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, many poor residents who once received their healthcare from state-subsidized county programs were transferred to MediCal. The Maximum Family Grant repeal repurposes some of those county health subsidies to pay for this year’s increase in CalWORKs aid. The remainder of the cost of repeal will be drawn from the General Fund, but the Legislative Analyst projects that the county savings will be sufficient to cover the entire cost of repeal by 2022.

Republican Assembly Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley and GOP state Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber—and even California Republic Party chairman Jim Brulte, the former legislator who authored the bill creating the family cap—declined to comment on its repeal.

But in the past, conservatives have argued that the rule simply encourages mothers on public assistance to practice family planning. They have also argued that the public funds being spent on repeal would more effectively reduce poverty if they were directed at job training, education, or childcare.

That was the argument made by Assembly Republicans in the caucus’ official response to Gov. Brown’s revised budget from last May.

“There are better alternatives to help lift people out of poverty than simply increasing their welfare payments when they have more children,” the report read. It highlighted a bill by Mayes that would have rewarded CalWORKs beneficiaries with higher aid grants if they obtain high school and college degrees. That bill died in the Assembly appropriations committee last November.

“There are other ways that could better hit the root cause of poverty,” Bob Huff, then the state Senate Minority Leader, told Capital Public Radio last March.

Clearly the politics of the issue have shifted over the past decade.

How taxes and safety nets reduce the gap between rich and poor

After Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992 with a promise to “end welfare as we know it,” Congress and statehouses across the country took up the cause of cutting welfare enrollment and encouraging beneficiaries to find work, get married, and form stable two-parent households. Many legislatures introduced “family cap” laws, with 23 states eventually approving the idea, including California in 1994.

And yet social science research suggests that such family caps do little to discourage families receiving welfare from having additional children.

“I think the evidence is fairly clear that these policies certainly did not have a big impact on fertility,” says Hilary Hoynes, an economist at UC Berkeley and an expert on social safety net programs. “Even before welfare reform happened and these family caps were put in place, we actually had a long and rigorous history of research evaluating the extent to which these concerns have merit.”

States, by rolling out family cap laws, gave researchers more opportunities to test out the theory.

In 2009, two researchers at Harvard and the City University of New York published a paper in which they reviewed a dozen studies looking for an empirical relationship between family cap laws and fertility. All but two came up empty-handed.

Results ranged from a 2001 Government Accountability Office report, which simply claimed that there was insufficient evidence one way or another, to a 2004 statistical analysis published in the Journal of Human Resources, which found that fertility rates were actually higher among young women in states where family cap laws were on the books (though this difference was not considered statistically meaningful). A third, qualitative study, in which researchers interviewed young women on welfare in New Jersey, found that most were unfamiliar with the policy.

The few studies finding evidence that family caps may actually reduce fertility rates among welfare recipients tended to raise other troubling questions for conservatives. For example, a 2008 paper by researchers at Rutgers University found that family cap rules have had some success at reducing fertility rates—but only among black and Hispanic women in states where Medicaid dollars were used to fund abortions for low-income women.

California, in rolling back its own family cap rule, joins six other states that have reversed course. While Hoynes applauds what she calls a shift towards “evidence-based” thinking among policy makers on this issue, she stresses that the repeal is likely to affect a small number of families relative to the more than 6 million people living in poverty in California.

“Historically, California has been very much near the top of the states in terms of the generosity of cash assistance,” says Hoynes. “But there is much greater need in the state than the program can serve.”

Indeed, California’s welfare program does provide more cash aid to its poor residents than the vast majority of other states.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, California offers the third-highest maximum state welfare benefit in the country. CalWORKs spends 46 percent of its funds on direct cash assistance (the national average is 25 percent, with the remaining funds going to child care, job training, and programs not typically associated with welfare such as college financial aid and abstinence-only education).

And California grants welfare benefits to a greater share of people in poverty—65 percent, compared to the national average of 23 percent.

Now that the repeal of the family cap will expand benefits to larger families, nonprofits across the state are spreading the word by visiting hospitals, making announcements at legal clinics, and publishing bilingual pamphlets.

“Part of the experience of these families is that you get these things attached to your record and they affect you—and nobody tells you what’s going on,” says Cheryl Fabio, a program director at the Oakland chapter of Parent Voices, a non-profit aimed at mobilizing low-income parents around child care issues.

She recalled attending a meeting in the East Bay community of Dublin with parents enrolled in CalWORKs. “One mother kept sayings, ‘my child is an MFG, my child is an MFG,’” says Fabio. “But she had no idea what that meant.”

That mirrors Rocio Zavala’s experience as well. As she recalls, it was only after giving birth to her third child that the county notified her the family would not be receiving any additional financial support.

“We rely on that money,” she says. “It’s the way we live—to keep a roof over our heads and electricity in our home.”

Ben Christopher is a Bay Area journalist and CALmatters contributor.

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...