By Hannah Brandt
Like the migrants and refugees flooding Europe’s shores today, Luan Huynh’s family escaped the ravages of war in Vietnam on a boat. In their case, it was her father’s fishing boat, which took them to Hong Kong. Then a flight to Japan took them to Texas. After 10 days in a processing center in Houston, her family was sponsored by a Catholic church to come to Fresno. It was 1982 and Huynh was six years old. She would go on to Winchell Elementary in southeast Fresno, where so many Southeast Asian immigrants settled in the 1970s and 1980s. It is where I would meet her at Roosevelt High School, 20 years ago now.
Before that, she was bused to middle school at Computech. As a young person, she showed the promise of the important work in the community that was to come. Mentors in programs devoted to fostering interest in math, science and the arts believed in her, were inspirational role models and opened doors that likely would not have otherwise. Huynh grew up in the projects, the daughter of a gardener who worked hard to provide for his seven children and extended family living under one roof. Language barriers and poverty made that difficult to achieve.
Although the houses were moldy, the floors were made of concrete and the bathrooms stunk no matter how much they were cleaned, it was a supportive environment. People were poor, but on an emotional front, she was well-provided for. The backs of the houses all faced each other, so that to the children, the neighborhood felt like one big house. Just like my Dust Bowl grandmother, they all swam in the ditches by the railroad tracks because their parents could not afford the fees for the neighborhood swimming pools.
Due to the diversity of our academic environment in high school in southeast Fresno, Huynh says she developed bonds with students pushing back and reaching out across the boundaries devised to keep us apart. As a perceptive teenager, the differences in experience she saw between her friends prompted her to think about class and the disparity of access to resources. This consciousness was strengthened at UCLA where she saw many BMWs in the student parking lot and knew families who had spent $800 on private tutoring for the SAT. Until then, she had believed in the American myth that pulling oneself up by the bootstraps was the means to equal opportunity for all. What stared her in the face now was the harsh reality that the playing field was far from level.
This social awareness would inform Huynh’s work from then on. She got her BA in communications and went on to law school. As the product of subsidized housing, she has been involved in public benefits for a number of years. So many of her experiences were only possible due to subsidized programs: from public assistance to education abroad. Huynh focuses on what systems can do for people who do not have the material ability to achieve the basics for themselves and their families. How do we provide stability and basic needs for children to realize their full potential? To fight racism, sexism and all the other “isms” that hold people back. To ensure that necessary aid is not taken away, forcing people into homelessness, mental health conditions and physical ailments. She is now a policy attorney with the Child Care Law Center in San Francisco.
“Policy with moral judgment attached is dangerous,” Huynh asserts. “It indicates that as a society, we don’t trust poor people to tell the truth.” She refers to a specific law known as the Maximum Family Grant. It is a cap on aid based on the number of children in a family. From legislature. ca.gov: “Under existing law, for purposes of determining a family’s maximum aid payment under the CalWORKs program, the number of needy persons in the same family is not increased for any child born into a family that has received aid under the CalWORKs program continuously for the 10 months prior to the birth of the child, with specified exceptions.” These exceptions do not include broken condoms or evidence of failed oral contraceptives. The only exemptions to the Maximum Family Grant are ineffective sterilization, an intrauterine device (IUD), or Norplant, or Depo-Provera.
According to Huynh, this is evidence of distrust of the poor, who are primarily people of color and women. “It is insulting to require women to remove something from their bodies to prove failure of a contraceptive. There is a disturbing legacy of the government forcing people of color to be sterilized to control them and keep them from having children.” Furthermore, she says, “This policy is driven by the notion that poor women are having children to get rich. Many studies have proven that false. This is still motivated by stereotypes perpetrated in the 1980s about ‘welfare queens’: images of women of color exploiting the public assistance system merely by the human condition of having children. There is an exception to the MFG rule for rape, but you have to report the rape within three months of the birth of the child to the police, medical practitioners, or social workers. If you wait past the three months, you cannot get aid.
“It adds to the idea that poor people are not good enough to have children, that they have no business having children because they cannot afford to provide for their basic needs without assistance. Having children cannot only be a privilege for the wealthy and middle class. Punishing families for having children by taking away cash benefits has a corrosive effect on society as a whole. We are a cash-based society, so this exacerbates poverty and harms children. If families do not have cash to buy diapers or car seats there is a disastrous domino effect. Language barriers and intimidating laws add to the possibility that poor families may not know about car seat laws. If they get a ticket for that and do not have the cash to pay for it, they are in danger of going to jail for these unpaid tickets. This creates more instability for children.
“All the things that make people unstable also make it harder to get a job, which further devastates families. Despite the good work many homeless shelters do, if you are moving from shelter to shelter, without a permanent address, your resume will not be considered. We must understand that there is a basic human need for housing, food and healthcare. The Maximum Family Grant law was passed in 1994 as a budget bill. In 1992, a ballot initiative was rejected by the public, but a Republican governor (Pete Wilson) fast-tracked the bill without vetting it. The budget was balanced on the backs of poor people, and it has been on the books for 21 years; 134,000 children are not getting aid because of it, with the rate particularly high in the Central Valley. The bill to repeal the Maximum Family Grant is SB23.”
“It is a travesty for parents to live this way because poor parents want to provide the basic necessities for their children the same as affluent parents. We need a policy that supports families. Those are true family values. That must include supporting children who already exist in our society. All public school students are subsidized by the government. All of that is welfare. It is all subsidized to give kids access to resources. Why is it okay to subsidize $9,000/year for education but not $134/month for housing and basic needs. That works out to $1,500/year. School doesn’t exist by itself and support cannot just come from educators. We have to think about a holistic approach, connected services with connected results. We cannot have success without it all being interconnected.”
Hannah Brandt is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @FresnoAlliance on Twitter and Instagram, or Community Alliance Newspaper on Facebook.