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A welfare-to-work rule that hurts kids

 A welfare-to-work rule that hurts kids
Three–month–old Dalylah Rose Brilanti gets a bottle from her single mom inside a Cal Works office in Feb. 2009. (Los Angeles Times)

Under the current rules for CalWORKs, the state's welfare-to-work program, poor families who qualify for aid are awarded cash grants based on the size of the family, up to 10 people.

But the amount of the grant then remains the same. If a family with two kids, for example, has a third while receiving benefits, there's no corresponding boost in the welfare check unless the baby was a result of rape, incest or a failure of birth control.

That's needlessly harsh. The policy is based on the theory that women who choose to get pregnant while on welfare ought not to be rewarded. Otherwise, they will keep having babies and remain stuck in a grim cycle of poverty. That may have made sense back in the last century when families stayed on welfare for long periods of time (or maybe it didn't make sense even then, since studies don't support the hypothesis). But once welfare was massively reformed in the mid-1990s with lifetime limits and strict work rules, the caps were rendered pointless. Yet, they have persisted for two decades, punishing thousands of children.

It's time to do away with those caps, known as "maximum family grants." Sen. Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) is trying to do that with SB 23, which is stuck in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The sticking point isn't philosophical. It's that repealing the cap comes at a cost of about $200 million a year — money the Legislature specifically decided not to include in the recently passed budget.

We approve of the fiscal prudence exercised by the governor and Legislature this year. But everyone expects revenues to be higher than projected. If so, $200 million would be just a small drop in the state's funding bucket yet would do so much good for the state's neediest families. There's also the potential that providing higher monthly welfare checks would reduce other state expenses, such as Medi-Cal costs to pay for illness in children caused or exacerbated by poverty.

In the aggregate, it's a big expense every year. Individually, it's a modest lifeline. The average grant for a family of three is currently $704 a month. The lifetime limit is four years. And the bonus for another kid would be about $130 a month, varying slightly depending on where the family lives.

A small hike in the monthly check is not going to lift families out of poverty. It will take a lot more than repealing the maximum family grant to do that. But it could make the difference in whether a poor family can afford diapers and baby wipes for the newborn and still feed the rest of the family.

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