The Fall of the “Welfare Queen” in California

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After years of debate, California Governor Jerry Brown has finally given in to liberal legislators and advocates of the poor by eliminating a California welfare rule that many believe inordinately targets poor mothers of color. The rule goes by many names–the “Welfare Queen” rule, the family cap, and formally in California as the Maximum Family Grant Policy–and prevents families from receiving more benefits if they have additional children while receiving benefits.

California’s revocation of the policy is projected to cost the state a projected $220 million each year, and will eventually be funded by an account for inflationary increases to welfare benefits. With Brown’s decision, California joins a list of seven other states to repeal the rule, which once existed in some form or another in nearly half of U.S. states.

The rule is a byproduct of the criminalization of welfare recipients that began in part with Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign rhetoric:

Reagan ran a campaign largely based on the anecdotal evidence of a few criminals who defrauded the U.S. welfare system, with the conclusion that welfare fraud was a pervasive plague in the U.S. that could only be eliminated by cracking down on the “welfare state.”

The stereotype of the “welfare queen” has persisted as a woman, usually black, on welfare who persistently has children, does not work, and lies to receive greater handouts.

“Welfare queen” rules emerged in the early 1990’s as a solution, with the belief that if women were to not receive additional benefits for additional children, that they would stop having additional children. Not only have studies found that the rules have no distinguishable impact on birth rates among mothers who receive benefits and are subject to a family cap, but the rules have been criticized as degrading and dehumanizing to poor mothers.

Opponents have long held that children shouldn’t be penalized just because they were born into a poor family, while advocates of the policy claim that the estimated additional $130 families will be receiving will not be enough to lift families out of poverty. But ultimately, California legislators decided that the policy was ineffective in its goals, perpetuated unfair stereotypes, and punished children in deep poverty for elements out of their control.

However, this is just a first step to de-constructing the “welfare queen” image, which is unfairly projected on poor mothers.

There are still many other states with family cap rules. Additionally, public perception of mothers and families on welfare is often flawed. For example, pervasive myths such as welfare recipients buying alcohol, cigarettes, and fast food with SNAP benefits are simply untrue. SNAP benefits only apply to non-ready-to-eat food items with small exceptions for eligible disabled, homeless, or elderly recipients who can purchase select restaurant items in a few states.

Similarly, one of the most common welfare recipient stereotypes is the lazy non-working adult who is on welfare for years without ever working. Contrarily, 20 states have work requirements for TANF (the program for cash welfare assistance) recipients, including California.

The myth that most people using welfare stay on it for years also isn’t true. Many areas only allow single adults to receive SNAP for three months while unemployed, and many places have a lifetime limit on how long an individual can receive welfare benefits–California’s is 48 months.

California and many other states have a long way to go in deconstructing the harmful stereotypes of poor mothers and families they have perpetuated. But California has shown that the first step is possible, and that strong legislatures and citizens prioritize the livelihood, dignity, and opportunity of poor communities.

Ashlee Smith
Ashlee Smith is a Law Street Intern from San Antonio, TX. She is a sophomore at American University, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Journalism. Her passions include social policy, coffee, and watching West Wing. Contact Ashlee at



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