California’s assistance for the neediest endured deep cuts as state leaders closed multibillion-dollar budget deficits and weathered the financial crisis.
Heading into another budget-planning cycle, the state leads the nation in poverty by one widely used measure, even though its minimum wage is among the highest.
Gov. Jerry Brown has made some modest investments to help shore up the social safety net, but has largely stuck to his mantra of austerity and his goal of long-term debt reduction. Restoring reductions in social service programs isn’t easy given voters’ 1988 decision to make education spending a required priority.
Now, with the Democratic governor set to unveil his spending plan this week amid rosier revenue projections and a rebounding economy, advocates for the poor and working families are preparing to mount their largest push in years for more resources, saying the state’s approach has been insufficient.
“You’ve brought down the wall of debt,” said Mary Ignatius, the statewide organizer for Parent Voices, which works to expand access to affordable child care. “Now let’s bring down the wall of poverty. Let’s start to prioritize these families who are still left behind.”
California will take in $2.2 billion more than expected in revenue though June, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, though virtually all of the increase will go to meet the state’s constitutional guarantee for schools and community colleges.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, the Legislature’s loudest voice for social service reinvestment, pointed to longer-term projections showing the state’s income will continue to grow even with the sunset of temporary sales and income tax increases. She noted voters in November supported creation of a rainy-day budget reserve.
Mitchell said her hope now is that “we can be in a different place to have a values-based conversation about investment again in California and Californians.” Her top priority has been to repeal legislation that prohibits aid for new children born into families already receiving welfare.
“Finance tends to say, ‘This is how much money we have left – fight amongst yourselves,’ ” Mitchell said. “How about as leaders we say, ‘We want X number fewer children in California living in poverty,’ and then figure out what we need to do to make that happen.”
California’s official poverty rate, at 16 percent, exceeds the national rate of 14.9 percent. Nearly a quarter of the state’s 38 million residents are considered poor – far and away the highest proportion in the U.S. – based on the Census Bureau’s measure that accounts for factors such as cost of living.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Brown’s Department of Finance, said legally required spending on schools must be considered before restoring other programs and services, and that in some cases overall social service costs have risen due to higher caseloads during the recession. He noted that the state under Brown climbed out of a $27 billion budget hole not simply by enacting spending cuts, but also by passing sales and income tax hikes.
Brown’s administration has pointed to several steps the governor has taken to help the poor. The state’s minimum wage, now $9 a hour, is set to rise to $10 an hour next year. He also has worked through his budget to direct education funding to poor and immigrant children.
Still, key individual aid payments are lower than pre-recession levels.
Low-income seniors and those with disabilities receive monthly grants that are a combination of state and federal money. State grant funding has declined by nearly 35 percent since 2007-08, adjusted for inflation, and now stands at the minimum allowed by federal law for individuals and couples. Annual state cost-of-living adjustments have been eliminated.
Although federal funding grew, overall grants now are lower than they were six years ago, even without adjusting for inflation, said Scott Graves, research director at the California Budget Project. State finance officials estimate the individual maximum monthly grant in Januaryto be $889, down from $907 in 2009. That’s a bit higher than the Budget Project’s $881 estimate.
Food banks, disability advocates, senior organizations, independent living centers and area agencies on aging have started a drive to bring most grants up to the federal poverty line, the amount considered necessary across the country for a person to meet basic needs. That number stood at $11,670 for a single person in 2014.
They want to reinstate annual cost-of-living adjustments and some want to ultimately reverse a long-standing policy that prevents recipients from obtaining federal food assistance through the CalFresh program.
Another focus is on the more than 500,000 families with children who are living in extreme poverty, said Mike Herald, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, defined as below 50 percent of the official poverty threshold. Advocates say there’s an urgent need to eliminate such childhood poverty, with the long-term goal of reducing grants only after families reach 100 percent of the poverty line.
“Throw us some bones. Help us build back,” Ignatius said. “Let these communities know that you see them.”
Under CalWORKs, the state’s welfare-to-work program, the maximum monthly grant for a family of three living in high-cost counties is $670, scheduled to grow to $704 in April under an agreement reached last year between Brown and lawmakers. That’s $19 below 2008-09. State cost-of-living adjustments for the program also were eliminated.
Brown pushed for a major overhaul of welfare in 2012. The lifetime limit for adult assistance has been reduced to four years from five. Policymakers also agreed to a controversial time-clock for the final two years in which recipients must meet more stringent federal work requirements.
Herald, who favors returning to a five-year limit, said there’s no evidence that the current system is working to move recipients from training into jobs.
“It’s going to take several years and several grant increases just to get us back to where we need to be,” he said. “And then at that point, we’re going to have to provide the cost-of-living adjustment just so we don’t slip back again.”
Among advocates’ top goals are passing Mitchell’s bill to provide aid for children born into welfare families, relaxing requirements in the final two years of welfare and working to further boost the state’s minimum wage to $13 an hour so a family of four with someone working full time could get out of poverty.
Herald said his colleagues have done a better job during the recession of bringing in academics and walking lawmakers through their poverty research.
“There is a whole ream of academic work that shows children who grow up in severe deep poverty – below 50 percent of the poverty level – have long-lasting impacts on education, earnings as adults, the likelihood they’ll graduate from high school and the likelihood they’ll end up in the corrections system,” he said.
Low-income families not on welfare have roughly 20,100 fewer child care slots than they did in 2008-09, at just over 228,800, the analyst said. The figures include state preschool.
The state in recent years scrapped its centralized eligibility list for child care to save money and required families to make less money to be eligible for the care.
Eloise Rossiter, 28, of Richmond, said she worked as a pharmacy technician at a retail store making about $17 an hour when she was offered a pay raise to move into the company’s corporate office. With a 1-year-old son and another on the way, she turned down the opportunity to make $1 to $2 more an hour – and presumably more down the road – because it would have meant losing her child care subsidy.
“That piece of mind of having that child care and being able to know how I would pay for it wasn’t worth me taking that raise,” Rossiter said.
“Those changes that happen in government offices, they do affect us greatly. And it’s like you are basically left in a position to say “Am I going to continue on this hamster wheel of relying on government help? Or, am I going to take this leap of faith and possibly be without any government assistance?’ ”
Those working in child care want several changes. They include increasing payments that go to caregivers, adding spaces, establishing regular inspections of facilities and expanding the role of referral programs, said Donna Sneeringer, director of government relations for the Child Care Resource Center, serving North Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
“It’s not nearly as dark as it was four or five years ago, when we were looking at huge budget deficits,” she said. “But we have miles to go to even regain where we were prior to the recession in the child care area.”
Advocates point out that California’s economy will benefit if more people are going to work and paying taxes. Yet changes to the budgeting process, including requiring a simple majority to pass a spending plan, put even more of the onus for managing expenses on Brown. Traditionally, Republicans were the most adamant bloc intent on holding down social service funding.
Mitchell said she wants Brown, as he enters his final term as governor, to be “empowered to think differently about how he spends his last four years, and goals he sets, and legacy he chooses to leave.” She reiterated lawmakers’ willingness to hold down spending and voters’ support for his tax and rainy day fund measures.
“We have done what he asked of us,” she said. “Now I want him to be emboldened.”
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.