Vanessa Aramayo is the director of California Partnership and a leader of the Health and Human Services Network of California, a coalition that advocates for vital health and human services.

Viewpoints: State must act to shed its No. 1 ranking in poverty

Published: Thursday, May. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 9, 2013 - 7:55 am

Right now, one out of every four children in California lives in poverty. If grouped together, these 2.2 million children would live in a city larger than San Diego and San Francisco combined. They are far hungrier, undernourished and less secure than the rest of us. Their playtime and daydreams, hallmarks of childhood, are interrupted by basic needs that go unmet every day.

Research shows that tough childhoods have an impact on early development and learning ability. It's difficult to focus on education when a family lives with the stresses of poverty; worrying about the basics like a home, food and health care. And while these children live in the Golden State, the promise of a prosperous life – finishing high school, going to college, becoming a nurse, a firefighter or a teacher – seems more like an unattainable dream.

For some of these kids, their families have slipped into or are slipping into "deep poverty," or living below half of the federal poverty line. Deep poverty is a family of four trying to get by on less than $1,000 a month. It marks the point at which families fall into chronic homelessness, children fall out of school, and for all intents and purposes, fall off the map.

California now has the highest poverty rate in the nation, with 23.5 percent of residents living in poverty. This crisis is the legacy of California's great recession and the deep budget cuts of the last five years. The recession hit California hard, and just when our most vulnerable residents needed the social safety net most, we obliterated it in an attempt to balance our budget. As a result, our poverty rate grew seven times faster than the national rate over the last five years, from 6 million to 8.7 million since 2008.

Why this staggering increase? Because, since 2008, California has slashed more than $15 billion from vital services designed to help children, families, seniors and Californians living with disabilities, our most vulnerable residents. These cuts have left widening holes in our safety net. They've resulted in thousands of child-care slots cut, in-home support service hours reduced for those not able to care for themselves, cuts to CalWORKs assistance to feed families, health care necessities such as adult dental care lost and Californians with disabilities living with fewer services.

The maximum CalWORKs grant for a family of three in the program, which provides modest cash assistance and job-related services for struggling low-income families with children, is now just $638 a month, only $5 more than 1985 levels.

That's why it's time for our Legislators to do something about California's poverty crisis. Our state's budget woes are behind us, our revenue outlook is bright, and the state is beginning to see signs of economic recovery. But we are not all feeling this recovery. It's time to make sure that those 2.2 million children and their families recover with the rest.

We cannot restore the Golden State to health, happiness and prosperity with the highest poverty rate in the nation.

Restoring the cuts to essential services will bring in federal dollars to our state, help families get back on their feet, create jobs and fuel our economy. Restoring cuts to child-care programs will help ensure that mothers returning to work in a bettering economy will get the help they need. Making restorations to In-Home Supportive Services, which has been deeply cut over the last five years, will help Californians with disabilities get the services they needs to live healthily and independently at home. Restoring CalWORKs grants will help children with the resources they need to grow up in healthy environments, to focus on their education and to thrive.

This year's state budget must focus on reinvesting in the social safety net that protects all of us. We've cut our way into poverty. Now, let's rebuild, restore and reinvest to work toward a better future for California. We owe it to the smallest and most vulnerable among us – our kids.

Vanessa Aramayo is the director of California Partnership and a leader of the Health and Human Services Network of California, a coalition that advocates for vital health and human services.

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