Capitol Alert

Mother Teresa, capitalism and Jerry Brown’s approach to poverty in California

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, talks with adviser Nancy McFadden, left, and Finance Director Michael Cohen, right, as he walks to a news conference to unveil his proposed 2015-16 state budget plan in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 9, 2015.
Gov. Jerry Brown, center, talks with adviser Nancy McFadden, left, and Finance Director Michael Cohen, right, as he walks to a news conference to unveil his proposed 2015-16 state budget plan in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. AP

For more than a year, Gov. Jerry Brown has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for a poverty rate that remains highest in the nation when adjusted for the cost of living.

Nearly a quarter of the state’s 38 million residents are impoverished, according to that measure, and with few exceptions Brown has had little to say.

But on Friday, with liberal activists preparing to rally against a “wall of poverty” in response to the release of his annual spending plan, Brown offered this defense: The state does spend a lot on poor people, he said, and income inequality is a force of capitalism outside of his control.

“This is an issue that is part of America, it’s part of the structure of modern individualism, capitalism, stratification – it’s there,” he said.

The counterpoint came from Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles. It was only four days ago that she watched Brown, in his inaugural address, call for sweeping measures to address climate change.

That, too, is a global phenomenon, and Brown has championed environmental causes from his perch in California for decades.

Mitchell said it is “frankly beyond me” how Brown can propose far-reaching carbon reduction measures “and not understand that the state can play an equally critical and pivotal role in setting stretch goals for itself to reduce the number of kids in California who live in poverty.”

At his news conference Friday, Brown suggested he sympathizes with anti-poverty activists. He said he “personally drove mothers to find shelter at night” while mayor of Oakland, and he recalled visiting Calcutta in the 1980s to feed the dying and destitute at Mother Teresa’s House of the Pure Heart.

However, he said, “There’s always someone in need, in fact there’s millions of someones in need, and we’re doing quite a lot – more than most states, I would say.”

Asked about wages, he mentioned a grandniece who doesn’t feel that she is paid enough.

What would he say to her?

“I’d say, we’re not going to adopt a socialist system,” Brown said.

Mitchell groaned.

“To then just say, the War on Poverty didn’t work and we’re not going to be a socialist nation, and people have the wherewithal to go to work,” she said. “What is that?”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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