Most families who receive welfare live in dire poverty. Even with the aid that California Work Opportunities and Responsibility to Children (CalWORKs) provides, families frequently cannot afford to obtain the basic necessities of life. One factor that determines the amount of cash benefits a family receives is family size. However, currently in California the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) law (also known as the family cap) prohibits an increase in grant money even if a family’s size increases due to the birth of a child. This policy is intended to control impoverished parents’ choices about the size of their families and when to conceive through the threat of economic hardship. Melissa Ortiz is a mother that is currently impacted by the MFG rule. Below is her story.
"My name is Melissa Ortiz. I am the mother of four children: 19-year-old James, 15-year-old Vanessa, and 14-month-old twins, Dominic and Gabriella. Dominic and Gabriella, are punished by the CalWORKs Maximum Family Grant rule. Being a mother is hard work, but I wouldn’t change it for all the wealth in the world. It is a gift for me to be in their lives and to help shape them from infants into adults. I was born to do this.
James has graduated high school and is going into the Fire Academy at Chabot College. Vanessa is captain of the Junior Varsity Cheer Team and a member of the track team. The twins are constantly watching, learning, giggling, and needing diaper changes. I love waking up in the morning and seeing their faces and having them crawl all over me, demanding that I get up. Today, we went to the park and I flew a kite for them as they crawled and walked. I have had a very hard life, but my children more than make up for it because they all bring me so much joy.
The happiness I get from motherhood is not without pain. My pain, in part, stems from having a mother who abused drugs and alcohol and neglected her kids. I was in the foster care system from 10 to 18 years old. Being hurt by my mom has taught me lessons and has helped me to prioritize my children. Maybe it is the pain that I have experienced from the loss of a child that made me want to keep the twins. On April 29th, 2008, before the twins were born, I gave birth to a child when I was only six months pregnant. My water had broken and my body went into pre-mature labor. We named the baby Neveah (heaven spelled backwards). My baby only survived three hours because her organs were not developed enough.
After Neveah passed away, I was more depressed than ever. I couldn’t get out of bed. I would just sleep, cry, and eat. I gained lots of weight and was up to 300 lbs. If I had to run an errand, I would do it in my pajamas. I wanted to have a baby and felt such a loss when she passed. For four years, I tried to get pregnant. I consulted with my doctor who told me that it wasn’t going to happen because there was so much damage caused from a cervical cancer biopsy for which I had a cyst removed and from the removal of the “after” birth with Neveah. After a long time trying, I gave up on trying to have a baby.
In 2011, I started seeing both a therapist and psychologist who helped me see that I was in an abusive relationship. I kicked my husband out, got a divorce, and decided to use the lap band method to lose weight. I decided to do me. I started dating my current husband, Gustavo. I got pregnant. I didn’t think I could get pregnant, but I think there was something about the weight loss that facilitated the pregnancy. I was in shock. Gustavo and I talked about the possibility of having an abortion. However, having suffered the way I did with the loss of Neveah, there was no way I could have an abortion. I was already attached to the twins. I told Gustavo that if I had to do it alone, I would. When Gustavo went with me to the first ultrasound appointment, we could see their bodies and hear their heartbeats. On January 29th, 2012, I gave birth to the twins.
What does it mean that the children are subject to the MFG rule? It means that the children cannot get aid because the State wants to punish me and them—me for choosing to be a mom again while on welfare, and them for being born into poverty.
People think the worst of you when you are poor. They think you are less of a mom and that you are a bad mom if you choose to bring children into the world when you are poor. Even more insulting is the idea that poor women like me are controlled by money more than we are liberated by our emotions, experience, and sense of knowing what is right for our families.
It has been rough living off of $516 a month. We didn’t have money to buy car seats and had to depend on our friends and families to help. A relative ended up using their SSI money to buy us one car seat. We didn’t have money to pay for diapers, wipes, shampoos, and toiletries. I had to go to charities, wait in line, and hope that the charities had diapers that day. There were times when I was in line for two hours only to have the charity run out of diapers. My family has a difficult time trying to pay utilities bills. I am constantly trying to pay just enough to not have services get shut off. It’s very stressful.
I am here to tell you that as a mother, we are not becoming mothers to collect welfare. I want to work, but it has been hard. The economy has been tough. I try to put myself out there by volunteering and trying to build my resume so that I can help myself, and help other families in need. I volunteer for Jenosis Ministries Church, which is how I have been able to get some of the diapers for the babies, because without them, my babies would be without diapers, wipes, and soaps.
I am trying my best to be a great mom. Like so many parents, I cried when my son James graduated and walked across the podium. My children, like other children, do not need to be punished and treated as less than and given less than what is necessary to survive. The MFG rule is not good for my children or California’s children.
I am asking you to stand with me to repeal the MFG rule, so that poor children are not harmed and women are not forced into sterilization and other contraceptives that might not be right for them."
You can take action today to support mamas like Melissa! At this moment AB 271 (Mitchell) - a bill to repeal the Maximum Family Grant in California- is in suspense in the Assembly Appropriations committee. It is critical that this bill move off of suspense and to the Assembly floor for a vote. Please send Appropriations Chair Mike Gatto a Mama's Day ecard with the following message: "All families matter. Don’t balance the budget on the backs of poor families. This Mother’s Day support AB271 and repeal the MFG." at assemblymember.Gatto@assembly.ca.gov. And be sure to share your card on Twitter and Facebook!
Melissa Ortiz is a mom of four children, including Gabriella and Dominic who are subject to the Maximum Family Grant rule. For Mother’s Day, Melissa will be spending time with her children and her husband’s mother as they celebrate motherhood together.
This blog post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blog. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.