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Drawing the Line : Even Some Welfare Mothers Call ‘Family Cap’ a Good Idea

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After struggling for 14 years to take care of her seven children by collecting welfare checks, Betsy Bolton said Tuesday she has gotten the message that state officials hope to send by adopting a controversial “family cap” on welfare families.

“I’m not having any more,” Bolton, 29, said in the county welfare office in Compton. “I can’t take care of the ones I’ve got.”

The Clinton Administration on Monday approved letting California drop additional cash payments for welfare families that have more babies. State officials plan to post signs in welfare offices notifying recipients that the restriction will take effect in approximately 10 months--enough lead time to warn anyone who is not yet pregnant.

Officials believe the cap, now used in six other states, will discourage women on welfare from having additional babies and save California more than $200 million each year beginning with the 1997-98 fiscal year.

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Bolton was one of a significant number of welfare recipients interviewed in a variety of Los Angeles-area offices Tuesday who said welfare reformers have a point.

“They better stop like me,” she said of other welfare mothers. “The only way I’m having another baby is if I’m financially straight.”

Teresa Martinez, 24, said she will postpone adding to her family of two children until she has a job and her own place to live. Having more children while still on welfare would be selfish, she said. “God gave me a gift to have these beautiful kids, but I’ve got to give them things in life, not just sit here and take and take and take,” she said.

Opponents of the family cap say the decision whether to have children should be made by women, not the government.

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When a reporter told Tracy Cox about the cap in the Compton office, she grew sad.

“Oh my goodness, that isn’t right,” she said. “I have five kids and I did not get pregnant just for the aid.”

In the Lincoln Heights welfare office, one young mother who declined to be identified said the cap is unfair because it prevents women who have made mistakes from starting over with a clean slate.

“I just have one kid now, but what if I met someone new and I decided to start over--that means I can’t have any more babies. It’s like in China,” she said.

At the Exposition Park office, Crinae Cunningham was one of several mothers waiting in line who supported the cap.

“I’m not going to have more kids if I can’t support them,” said Cunningham, a 19-year-old mother of two who said she tells her peers who think about having children to finish school and get jobs first. “The county ain’t always going to be here” to help, said the teen-ager, who like many younger welfare recipients shared a more optimistic view of life’s possibilities than welfare veterans.

“I think it’s good. There are people who have kids just to get bigger checks,” said Kathy Davila, a pregnant single mother of a 4-year-old girl who receives about $300 each month in addition to about $75 worth of food stamps. Davila shares a small one-bedroom house with a friend in the Florence district of South-Central Los Angeles.

“I know a woman who had seven kids and receives over $1,000 a month plus food stamps,” she said. “You should only ask for help when you really need it.”

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At an office on Olympic Boulevard on the Eastside, a woman named Tony said the notion of the cap program--and the strong support it received from California’s governor--infuriated her.

“I don’t like Pete Wilson. He’s trying to take everything away from everybody,” said the woman, who declined to give her last name. "[Nobody] asked for the babies.” Welfare exists to help children, and the state should support the babies no matter what the parents have done, she insisted. “Why do they want to control our lives?”

In Echo Park, Maria Bernal, who has a 3-month-old daughter and just applied for welfare, said a better reform would be to eliminate cash payments in favor of coupons that could only be used for baby services, such as child care and food.

“Grown-ups can get by, but the babies won’t,” she worried.

At a Central City office on Beverly Boulevard, many women were unaware of the new regulation, but few expressed surprise.

Sandra Aguilar, a welfare mother of two, said she was pleased. Disgusted with what she feels is rampant lying among welfare recipients, she said she had twice reported dishonest relatives to social services authorities. As a result, both were investigated and denied benefits entirely, she said.

Across town on Whittier Boulevard in another Eastside welfare office, Yolanda Hernandez, 18, applying for welfare for the first time since she became a single mother at 14, heard a reporter describe the family cap, surveyed a stuffy waiting area, and sighed.

Welfare “is helping a lot of these people live,” said Hernandez, who said she is going to school and hopes to find a job. “But some of them need to get up off their butts and find a job.”

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Times staff writers Jose Cardenas, Ken Chang, Emi Endo, Paul Johnson, Lorenza Munoz, Antonio Olivo, Margaret Ramirez and Erin Texeira contributed to this story.


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