Dan Walters

Opinion: California’s poor are now on government agenda

California’s big – and shameful – secret was revealed a few years ago in a dry statistical compendium from the federal Census Bureau.

California, which had long boasted of its commitment to egalitarian ideals, had, the data revealed, become the most poverty-ridden state.

Its official poverty rate was roughly in line with the nation as a whole, but the Census Bureau’s alternative measure, which took into account all forms of income and the cost of living, found nearly a quarter of Californians to be impoverished, by far the highest rate of any state.

It was not a revelation to those who’d paid close attention to the state’s transition into a post-industrial economy during the 1980s and 1990s, which erased millions of middle-income jobs, or to the impact of vast immigration by the poor from other nations.

They had seen, and written about, California’s evolution into a two-tier society – immense wealth generated by and for those in the expanding technology sectors of the economy, and rising numbers of poor either jobless or scratching out marginal livings in service sectors.

Politicians largely ignored the transition. To acknowledge it would be to assume some responsibility for addressing it, with no political upside. But the Census Bureau report, and even more detailed data from the Public Policy Institute of California, made it impossible to ignore forever.

Last year, the Republican candidate for governor, Neel Kashkari, seized on poverty – even donning rags and living for a few days on the streets of impoverished Fresno. But Gov. Jerry Brown, cruising to re-election, ignored Kashkari’s taunts.

Last week, in his inaugural address to the Legislature, Brown continued to tout California’s economic recovery without mentioning its stubborn poverty problem.

But as Brown released his 2015-16 budget on Friday, he was compelled by reporters’ questions – and anti-poverty demonstrations – to defend himself and reject pleas to expand services to the poor.

Overall, including federal funds, the state already spends about $120 billion a year on the poor, including Medi-Cal coverage for nearly a third of the population, Brown said.

“California does more than most states to mitigate that (poverty),” Brown added. “We do have quite a safety net.”

Indirectly, and without attribution, Brown adopted Kashkari’s approach to poverty – improve prospects for employment by making the state more attractive to job-creating investment and boosting spending on job-oriented education.

Poverty is now on the political agenda and Brown is at odds with most fellow Democrats in the Legislature, who want to boost spending on health and welfare services.

Doing more, he said, would upset a budget that is “tightly balanced,” adding, “So there it is; we do the best we can.”

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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