Enough Is Enough: Poor Women Are Not Having Babies for Money


When I was young, my mom was on welfare. She wasn’t unlike other moms on our South Los Angeles block: single, working multiple jobs, and doing her best to keep her head above water. She cared deeply for my brother, my sister, and me. We knew she did, because in order to make sure we had enough, my mom braved the stigma that—then and now—is tethered to receiving state benefits. Braving it is what poor people do.

Despite that, like other families living below the federal poverty line, my family was punished for being poor. Back then it was all about shaming—from policy makers, from moral demagogues, and from other poor people. It was ubiquitous. Today the shaming still persists, but with it has come a divestment in resources. In 1994, California—a state that has long touted its leadership in eradicating poverty—instituted the Maximum Family Grant rule. This rule denies financial support to babies born while their families are receiving grants from CalWORKs, California’s welfare program. This is less policy than social experiment—one based on the deeply problematic notion that if the state deprives families of critical resources for newborn babies, those families will stop reproducing. In reality, it simply punishes poor women for their reproductive decisions and pushes families further into poverty.

This year advocates are working hard to repeal the Maximum Family Grant rule, ensuring every child born into a family receiving benefits, no matter their birth order, has equal protection against the short- and long-term effects of poverty. With support from both reproductive justice and anti-poverty advocates, state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) introduced SB 899 to repeal the Maximum Family Grant rule and reinforce that a child born into poverty isn’t less deserving than one who is not born into such circumstances.

But advocates are facing a heavy lift. Passing this legislation means investing more than $200 million in CalWORKs families. It also means deconstructing the narrative that poor women have babies for money and making the case that every person, no matter their income, deserves to parent their children with dignity. Opponents argue that people should simply wait to have children until they can afford to do so. But the Economic Mobility Project study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of people who are born into poverty never leave poverty. Is the presumption that those people should never have children?

I remember, vaguely, the shaming energy on my block as a child. But there was something more sinister that left a bad taste in all of our mouths: There was a permeating assumption that the women in my community who were receiving benefits were “gaming the system,” that they collected benefits and never worked. I never met someone who did that. Our neighbors—who, like us, were poor enough to qualify for benefits—all worked. If they didn’t get up to go to a nine-to-five job, they worked from home. They cooked all day and sold plates of food to other families or people passing by. They did hair in their kitchen or watched another family’s kids. They picked up recycling and trudged it to the recycling center for pennies. They worked.

The Maximum Family Grant rule punishes poor women, many of whom are women of color. Initially welfare recipients were mostly white widows or “deserving” divorced women. When the program was conceived, Black women were ineligible to receive aid because they, in the words of Dorothy Roberts, “were considered inappropriate clients of a system geared to unemployable women.” At that time there was little criticism of the program. When Black women became eligible, due in large part to the Civil Rights movement, the program drew public ire. White women were given the benefit of the doubt while other women, Black women especially, were judged much more harshly for their sexual and reproductive choices.

In her book, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Roberts writes, “Black mothers’ inclusion in welfare programs once reserved for white women soon became stigmatized as dependency and proof of Black people’s lack of work ethic and social depravity. The image of the welfare mother quickly changed from the worthy white widow to the immoral Black welfare queen. … Part of the reason that maternalist rhetoric can no longer justify public financial support is that the public views this support as benefiting primarily Black mothers.”

The Maximum Family Grant rule includes some exceptions that force a woman to choose between receiving aid to feed and clothe her family and disclosing personal medical information. If a child is conceived due to rape or incest, a mother must prove it by disclosing her status as a survivor. The only other exemptions are for the failure of highly invasive long-acting contraceptive methods that are designated by the state. The Maximum Family Grant rule undermines the intended mission of CalWORKs to provide temporary support to low-income families; it also limits women’s reproductive decisions and leads to government intrusion into families.

We know that not everyone in this country can earn at the same level, but Californians, among others, have long believed that it is not the government’s place to determine when and how a family grows. California has a long history of supporting a woman’s personal decisions regarding her reproductive choices. This should be true for all women, no matter their income.

Receiving aid helped my mom stay afloat. She needed help for a little while, and even though there was shame attached to that, she did it because she cared deeply about the well-being of her kids. Reproductive justice means honoring a person’s right to parent their children with dignity. Repealing the Maximum Family Grant rule will not lift families out of poverty entirely, but it will get us one step closer to that goal.

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Follow Shanelle Matthews on twitter: @TheShanelleM

  • purrtriarchy

    Low income women are expected to choose contraception over food and rent, and if they cant, stay abstinent, and should they get pregnant, have the baby, because abortion is selfish!! But but, having a kid you can’t feed is also selfish, according to pro lifers. So, the solution, is to give your children away to rich white people and to make money for adoption agencies!

    • Shan

      Bingo. If you’re poor, don’t even think about f*cking, ever. And if you and end up with an unintended pregnancy from all that f*cking you’re not supposed to be doing anyway, nobody should have to subsidize your abortion. And if you happen to give birth instead, either because you don’t want to have an abortion or because it’s now impossible to get one where you live, don’t expect to have raising that child subsidized, either. And remember that everybody but you can earn some money off of it if you decide to adopt.

      So stop f*cking or they will find a worse way to f*ck you. And all your kids. Every time.

      • purrtriarchy

        Myintx is blabbing about how every baby needs to be born and how every social program needs to be cut!

        Since when do babies need to eat anyways? I mean, as long as they don’t literally starve to death then I guess its OK. Since when did semi starvation ever hurt a growing child?

        • expect_resistance

          Myintx is a hypocrite. What else can we expect? Is there a new thread she is babbling on? She stopped answering me at patheos.

          • purrtriarchy

            Just the patheos one.

          • DHFabian

            The Clinton admin. ended welfare. The last I heard, there are 7 jobs for every 10 people who urgently need one, and a severe shortage of affordable child care. What has been the liberal response to poverty? When was the last time you heard a liberal suggest that, maybe, the desperately poor need food and shelter first?

          • Arekushieru

            What has been the Republican response? Cut funding for TANF, SNAP, WIC, etc…. That’s even WORSE. Kthx.

          • purrtriarchy

            Well thank God the republican party is here to cut every single social program that helps the poor.

          • http://batman-news.com Rhondayes

            Hell, I want to know what the conservative response to poverty? Oh God, please , don’t leave me hanging.

          • BJ Survivor

            Ash has stopped replying to me, but myintx keeps on. She’s claiming that I am as sick person who makes fun of people who have miscarriages to deflect from the fact that she doesn’t mourn over her used tampons. Oh, and I’m vulgar. Which I am; I swear like a sailor. What I don’t do, unlike she and her vile ilk, is insert myself into the private life, health, and medical decisions of other people (except to defend their right to make them without interference from religion-addled panty-sniffers, of course).

          • BJ Survivor

            Oops, I was wrong. Ash just replied to me. What a pedantic, lying sack of misogynist shit.

          • purrtriarchy

            I am confuse, BJ.

            I cant decide who is more obtuse. Myintx, Valerie Finnegan or Ash.

            Woe is me.

          • expect_resistance

            I think it’s three-way tie.

          • Jennifer Starr

            Valerie Finnegan is like Diana–she goes to LAN and whines about how mean we all are.

          • purrtriarchy

            It’s a martyrdom thing. Notice how every few months they reappear?

            They need to get their ‘fix’ every now and again, feel self-righteous and so on.

          • BJ Survivor

            And don’t forget Marcus Fenix, Princess Jasmine, and Coyote. There is no end to the depravity and stupid that is “pro-life.”

          • expect_resistance

            myintx just keeps rambling on with the same canned responses. I can almost predict what she will say next. She went off on me too for the tampon funeral thing. She keeps saying I’m making fun of women who have miscarriages even though I’ve explained to her over and over at great length that there is no pregnancy when a fertilized egg fails to implant, hence the tampon funeral. I know you understand my frustration. She started to reply to me again but sick of answering her idiotic posts. Plus I only have internet access on my phone right now and don’t want to burn through my data plan on her. Good luck with Ash.

          • Jennifer Starr

            It doesn’t matter how many times you explain it to her. It doesn’t matter how many facts you present or what you say. You’ll just get the same old canned responses. Round and round in circles. Frankly, I’ve given up on her.

        • Jennifer Starr

          Remember, this is the woman who thought that homeless people could just stroll into a jail and ask for something to eat. She’s not too with it in the brain department.

        • fiona64

          That one needs to STFU … or have her ass kicked. I’m not sure which. Maybe a combination of both.

        • Nicko Thime

          Gives them character and a work ethic, doncha know.

        • BJ Survivor

          Since when did semi starvation ever hurt a growing child?

          Or a growing fetus, for that matter?

          • purrtriarchy

            Starvation is natural!

            Abortion is not!

          • BJ Survivor

            Abortion is not! [natural]!

            Which you and I know is utter bullshit, since the vast majority of blastocysts and embryos either fail to implant or fail to progress and are sloughed away during menstruation.

      • Ella Warnock

        Don’t think about f*cking, because f*cking is only for the elite. But if we’re going down that particular rabbit hole, why not just start asking the NON-elite WHY they had sex. Was there a good enough reason? Was it for procreation? If you had a ‘good enough’ reason and thought you ‘might’ want a child — well, all the better to take that kid created for some of the ‘right’ reason and give it to a nice, white, Christian couple that deserves your child because . . . well, well . . . they’re ‘owed,’ you see – because they (as opposed to you or me) are *good* people.

        In the same way that an anti-choicer can have an abortion because “Well,my situation is DIFFERENT and has NOTHING to do with convenience whatsoever. *I* am not like all those OTHER selfish, wicked, s!utty women having abortions because I’ve got a long-term Junior League Committee to oversee; IOW, I’m IMPORTANT. I’m working for charity for MANY children, so it’s okay to sacrifice this one on the altar of my piety and, well, selfishness.

        That and to stave off the flurry of pearl clutching fellow Leaguers who will know nothing about your “crime” and you can scurry away back to those dark little places where you live. Ironically never making the connection between you and that poor, irresponsible, selfish, s!utty, POOR woman. Cannot for a moment step outside of your bubble and discover how similar your situations are, after all. That’s where you might be called upon to dig some empathy out of your cold, black heart. I’m not like *those* women. Why, I exist because these women desperately *need* my help. So, Miss Junior League Top Fundraiser 2014, will you charitable accolades keep you warm at night when you’re cold, old, and alone? If it meant that sometime, somewhere, you felt the rightness of your superiority over those who just weren’t fortunate enough “set it up so well, so carefully,” Perception, darlings.

      • DHFabian

        Low-income women are under constant pressure to marry. Very few men today are interested in a sex-free relationship, whether or not they have marriage in their plans.

        • lady_black

          Very few women, either.

          • BJ Survivor

            Word.

    • Ella Warnock

      Give your kids away to rich, white, CHRISTIAN people, natch.

      • Cactus_Wren

        Kids that are lighter than a paper bag, anyway.

        • http://batman-news.com Rhondayes

          OR,…directly from Africa. That makes either choice stylishly fashionable.

          • Cactus_Wren

            True, there’s so much more egoboo in “We adopted her from Ethiopia” than in “We adopted her from Pittsburgh”.

          • Shan

            I know someone who did that and I could never figure out why they spent (probably) tens of thousands of dollars and made multiple trips to Africa (there was a glitch) when there are SO many local children of all types.

          • Cactus_Wren

            Another issue, I sometimes suspect, is that if your child comes from China or Russia or Ethiopia, you can pretend to yourself that the child’s existence began the moment zie stepped off the plane in America. At least you can rest comfortably in the assurance that your child will never say anything awkward or uncomfortable such as, “Look, that’s the mall where my first Mom took me to buy shoes” or “That’s my old school, all my friends still go there, can I go visit them sometime?”

          • fiona64

            Yep. For a long time, it was trendy in the SF Bay Area (where I live) for single “ladies of a certain age” to adopt female infants from China; much more cachet than from the local orphanage/foster home.

    • expatin paradise

      The problem with this reasoning is that most white families don’t want to adopt black babies. Also, once brought to term, unwanted babies often become wanted. When the law was changed so that medicaid could not be used for abortions, more babies were born to welfare recipients, reducing their ability to seek work and get off the program. Access to abortion under medicaid would help many women leave or avoid the slavery of welfare.

      • Arekushieru

        Well, I’m not so sure that it’s because unwanted babies become wanted, however….

        • DHFabian

          In spite of the hardships, very few women were willing to give away their babies. The better-off never could figure out that poor women, just like real people, were ready and willing to put 100% of themselves into becoming able to provide decent lives for their children. Believe it or not, they love their children just as much as other parents love their own.

          • Arekushieru

            Yes, I never said they weren’t willing. It doesn’t mean the babies actually became WANTED. It was more likely that the alternative was just worse. I really dislike it when people misinterpret what I’m saying, just so ya know….

      • DHFabian

        You rather dramatically misunderstand this issue. Let’s start with the comment about “welfare slavery.” The last welfare check was issued in 1996. (I’ve noticed that some have recently begun referring to food stamps as “welfare;” there are no cash benefits, and food stamps are for the elderly, disabled and working poor.) The statistics proved that welfare was absolutely not a trap. Some 80% used aid temporarily. Welfare provided the stability and means to join/return to the job market. You can’t get a job without a home address, phone, bus fare. Welfare itself was the rungs on the ladder out of poverty, enabling people to obtain needed services (medical care, education,skills training). Recipients got jobs, earned wages, worked their way up, ultimately repaying all the aid they received via their own taxes. The average number of children in welfare families ranged from 1.5 to 2. What Americans ignored is the fact that the benefit increase for a second child was so small that it left the family even poorer. Welfare rolls rose during economic downturns, and fell when the economy improved.

        • expatin paradise

          I worked in my state’s system for many years, and know that welfare is still alive. The “welfare” programs differ from state to state. States with general assistance programs that serve intact families are certainly more prone to act as a short-term solution to people who have lost jobs or otherwise fallen on hard times. I worked in a state with a bare-bones program. States without general assistance are more likely to provide assistance in the long term to single women with children. These are the people who become trapped by the system. A single mother with young children has little prospect of finding employment and freeing herself from the system. If she finds a job, her employment generally ends after a few months because of absences due to sick children who cannot be in child care or transportation problems. After losing her job, she must reapply for assistance and be without income for a month or two while her application is pending. After experiencing that once or twice, she concludes that seeking work is not in her best interests. Most of these women would like to finish their education or find employment, but it isn’t feasible as long as they have young children at home. The inability to get abortions guarantees for many women that there is always a young child at home.

          • lady_black

            It can be done. I did it. But back then there were programs to put my kids in day care while I went to school, and I got a scholarship and a small grant to cover books and uniforms (which was deducted from my food stamps). I have no idea what types of assistance are there for young mothers these days. Back in the 80s, it could be done. It was very difficult, even with the support that was available. I lived in two rented rooms in my grandmother’s home with three young kids.

          • expatin paradise

            Certainly, it can be done, but it’s an uphill struggle, and many simply give up. Also, it requires healthy kids, a sympathetic employer, or a support system to provide child care when the kids are too sick to go to child care. I suspect that you had greater than average determination, too. Those who grew up in the welfare system and don’t know another life are probably less likely to see a way out.

          • lady_black

            Oh, no doubt. I’m well known for being extremely “determined.” Some might even call it bull-headed. After I found myself and got off welfare, I also got married and no longer used daycare. I made it because of strong family support that not everyone has.

    • DHFabian

      That actually is correct. Note that (the last I heard) we have 7 jobs for every 10 people who desperately need jobs — yet we firmly maintain that “there is no excuse” for being jobless. Poverty is a complex issue. Many former welfare recipients were married, but economic stresses are a leading cause of marriages falling apart. The men leave, and the women are condemned for being single parents. With our shortage of jobs, and even greater shortage of affordable childcare, we’ve imposed severe penalties on those who fail to secure jobs.

    • BJ Survivor

      Furthermore, the most effective contraception options are unattainable for most poor women, especially in Republican states. This leads to more unintended pregnancies for poor women, which translates to a higher rate of elective abortions. But no, it’s Planned Parenthood who coerces these women into “slaughtering their unborn babies.” And the very same people claim that hormonal contraception and LARCs are “abortifacient.” Fuck, are forced-birthers willfully ignorant and downright evil. I hate forced-gestation ideology with the fire of a trillion supernovae.

      • Arekushieru

        Heh, great minds MUST think alike. The first point you made was pretty much (but better stated than) my own point on another thread (I believe?).

  • TheBrett

    What I find hilarious about the whole “they’re breeding because you’re paying them to” argument is that there are actual countries out there that are trying to pay women with benefits and subsidies to have more children (particularly in ultra-low birth rate rich countries), and it not surprisingly doesn’t work. If deliberately trying to pay women to have children doesn’t work, then how the hell would it unintentionally work here in the US?

    • Arekushieru

      What’s REALLY ‘hilarious’ is that these people think Planned Parenthood is forcing black women to have abortions on the one hand, then they turn around and say that the government is paying poor people to ‘breed’, poor people who generally tend to be black and other women of colour. If they were REALLY concerned about the ‘black genocide’, wouldn’t they be SUPPORTING the poor people on welfare, even if these people WERE correct about the reason poor women were having more babies? Ugh, hypocrites.

      • purrtriarchy

        They even claim that the existence of contraception = black genocide

        • Pinkladyapple

          When I ask anti choicers if they’re okay with contraception I get the typical response, well of course Im okay with it just ZOMG pay for it yourself Im not subsidizing your lifestyle choices. Then you get the extreme anti choice nutters like Fetushood USA and their response is well bc is okay as long as its the kind that dosent KILL THE BAYBEEEZZ. Ive come to a consensus that conservatives just dont want unmarried women having access to it.Because if you’re a poor woman well…you must be unmarried and if you aren’t married you shouldn’t be fucking anyway amirite?!!!

        • Shan

          And yet the false stereotype of the black “welfare queen” with the state-supported brood still persists. The wingnuts can’t decide whether black people are all being Holocausted by the evil shade of Margaret Sanger or whether they’re breeding uncontrollably because they’re all on welfare. As if they were some species of animal, by some reports on the endangered list and by others classified as invasive. Either way, horribly racist.

          • DHFabian

            Inform those who are ignorant that the last welfare check was issued in 1996.The majority of our poor are white, and the majority of those on welfare were white.

        • redlemon

          Thinking for yourself? That’s a genocide.
          Doing what best fits your life and gives you fulfillment? That’s a genocide.
          Forced birth and no birth control? Unicorns farting rainbows with happy gnomes doing all the housework and bootstraps abounding!

      • Nicko Thime

        It is really, really hard to fix stupid, well nigh impossible, according to Ron White.

      • Guest

        Actually, this time I agree with you

    • DHFabian

      What’s really bizarre is that so many people somehow missed the news that the last welfare check was issued back in 1996. General Assistance and AFDC are long gone. TANF is a short-term job program for those with minor children. Back when we still had welfare, the benefit increase for an additional child was so low that it left the family much poorer, not better off. Women with few or no options often enough fell in love, putting her trust in a man who vowed marriage, etc., etc., only to see him disappear if she became pregnant. Without the money for an attorney and detectives, trying to obtain child support was usually a futile effort.

      • lady_black

        Yes, I remember that. Being asked if I knew where my ex-husband was, as though it was my job to keep track of him. The best thing Clinton ever did was sign uniform child support enforcement into law.

  • Nicko Thime

    This kind of crap started with Reagan and his lie about Cadillac Driving Welfare queens and has remained a lie the right tells in one form or another. It is still the same old condescension that the right uses in order to make themselves feel superior about voting to starve their fellow American.

  • DHFabian

    Actually, the majority of our poor are women, and the majority of these are white. Before Clinton ended poverty relief, cutting the rungs off of the proverbial ladder out of poverty, those with the fewest opportunities and options, as well as the lowest benefits, were the rural poor/white. This segment of the population has been stereotyped as “white trash.” Interestingly Martin Luther King had pointed out that the majority of poor are white, and explained why it was in the best interests of the poor of all races to unite, speaking up about the reality of US poverty to a surprisingly ignorant “middle America.”

  • http://batman-news.com Rhondayes

    Check this out The hypocrisy and double standard of some white folk is outrageous. Welfare is acceptable as long as you’re white. It began with the men at the end of the 1800s and again during the meltdown in the 1930s. Years, later Black men/ families requiring the same assistance became a problem. Then, as this article points out, when Black women qualified it became damning.

    Then, you have to listen to some knuckle dragging conservative say welfare, medicaid, and food stamps are reparations for slavery. lol. Really? White men and women were “owed” welfare and food stamps for working in the fields and dying in chains?

    • purrtriarchy

      Conservatives were in favor of gun control back when only whites could own guns.

      • BJ Survivor

        And SYG laws only seem to apply if you are male and not black, as well. But we’re totes a post-racist society. /eyeroll

  • BJ Survivor

    And men need to stop fucking women and insisting upon doing it condomless. Men need to stop shucking their responsibility for any children they had a hand in creating. And certain churches need to stop spouting the bullshit lie that contraception is evil and actually works by causing abortions.

    And, sorry, but no one should go hungry or without shelter or healthcare, especially in a country as wealthy as the United States.

  • BJ Survivor

    You do realize that all birth control, even LARCs, the shot, and sterilization have failure rates, right?

  • fiona64

    Your uninformed misogyny is duly noted.

  • fiona64

    Yet another one who fails to realize that all forms of contraception, including surgical sterilization, have known failure rates …

  • Rebecca Griffin

    It’s scary how many people think this, even people would identify as progressive. Thanks for the piece, I included it in my recommended reading roundup: http://t.co/c3p6XR5Xxz

  • Arekushieru

    Furthermore, your classism is duly noted. Women do not need to stop having sex just because they’re poor.

    The wealthy conservatives receive the same benefits they decry in the impoverished. In other words, they’re hypocrites and you should probably stop believing everything they say.

  • Arekushieru

    If you are that poor, it’s pretty unlikely that you have bus fare and it’s almost certain that you will have to choose between putting food on the table for the next couple of days and buying a box of condoms, even. It’s ALSO pretty certain that conservatives have geared it so that it will be almost IMPOSSIBLE for someone to ‘get their shit together’ in the first place. JUST as it’s EQUALLY certain that you are talking out of your privileged ass.

  • Shan

    “get a shot, get something. Just get your shit together before you take on more responsibility.”

    Fair enough, yeah, people should do that but who gets to determine who got their shit together (or tried and failed to but still deserves a shot) and then who gets to determine, based on that judgement, who gets what sort of aid? And what about the kids in the meantime?

  • Sodak Man

    Nothing cited in article or comments. Why did I waste my time.

    • Jennifer Starr

      I don’t know. Why did you?