Beyonce’s Formation tour blazed through Southern California before an audience mesmerized by the power of Black women and girls to transform difficult circumstances into new opportunities. In a video, Mrs. Hattie, Beyonce’s grandmother-in-law, reminded the audience about a life dealt full of lemons and how she made lemonade—a story far too familiar to Black women and girls.
The unemployment rate of Black women in California is 17% nearly triple the 6% national average. Over a quarter of Black Californians live in poverty and 1 in 5 Black women are living below the poverty line. Black women have more than triple the rates of hospital visits due to assault than the next highest ethnic group, the numbers around Black women and girls’ health are stark. Overall, Black women have less wealth, less income, and higher health disparities even as they are more educated and flexing their voting power at the polls in higher numbers. Nonetheless, Black women have determined presidents, governors and mayors, all while being the least seen and heard in the American political system.
For the last twenty years, Black women and girls in California living in poverty have had to make due with a minimal safety net based. Driven by the twin engines of the Clinton Administration’s “Welfare to Work” and CalWORKs Maximum Family Grant (MFG) policies, since 1996 poverty for Black women and girls have only increased in the twenty years since their implementation. While the Clinton legislation placed a cap on the length of welfare benefits, the CalWORKs policy instituted a child-cap where infants born to families receiving assistance from the state program are denied cash assistance unless they can prove their pregnancy was a result of rape, incest or a malfunction in state approved form of birth control. To meet these exceptions, mothers need to have formally reported the incident to social worker officer or prove that one of the state approved birth controls malfunctioned—namely Intrauterine device (IUD), sterilization, and norplant (which is no longer on the market). That means that for the last twenty years, Black women and families have had only a few years to move out of poverty while receiving no state support for children born after they receive benefits through CalWORKs. MFG literally counts and discounts children, punishing Black mothers and families for any subsequent children by withholding additional benefits. As a result, Black women and girls have been forced to contend with poverty compounded by a state program that does not value all of their children and assumes they are moral failures who require state supervision of their wombs and motherhood. Lemons on lemons on lemons.
California often prides itself on being better than many other states for women. Surveying the Governor’s recent revised budget reveals there is some truth in this when considering broad policies such as higher minimum wage standards. However, poor women and women of color still are left behind. But with a significant election season in our midst, Black voters flexing their power could be the lemonade making we need.
Unlike previous years, a few events point to a possible change in the tide, at least at the State level. For the past four years State Senator Holly Mitchell has led a campaign to repeal the MFG in California. In late March, the California Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services took action to repeal the CalWORKs program’s MFG policy. This, alongside the looming primary and California’s budget announcement, means there may be some real traction towards removing the ineffective MFG policy. Hopefully, the repeal of MFG and other policies aimed at relieving poverty, remain in the budget after Governor Brown’s revise, giving some of California’s most vulnerable families some small but necessary relief.
While Black women in California have found savvy and novel ways to navigate poverty during the reign of the MFG rule, shrinking economic opportunity and gender wage gaps only point to a future where poverty increases if this ineffective and dangerous rule persists. As California nears its June primary, Black women voters are a vital bloc for the viability of many elected officials and new candidates. Poor housing, maternal and infant mortality, intimate partner violence, and unemployment are the lemons that give poverty its sting. We should and must demand action to repeal and replace the MFG rule and call for a more robust poor people’s policy package and at the very least make our leaders earn our vote.
Marcus Anthony Hunter, Associate Professor, Sociology & African American Studies, UCLA and Nourbese Flint M.A.W.H – Policy Director, Black Women for Wellness, Los Angeles