Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Joe tries to show one guy can make a difference

Joseph N. Sanberg has taken it upon himself to help implement the earned income tax credit as a way to help the working poor.
Joseph N. Sanberg has taken it upon himself to help implement the earned income tax credit as a way to help the working poor. dmorain@sacbee.com

Say you’re a guy named Joe, who grew up in Orange County, got into Harvard and made so much money on Wall Street by the time you were 29 that you never had to work another day in your life.

You’re not a billionaire, but that doesn’t matter. At 36, you have more money than you could possibly spend in a lifetime, enough to buy any earthly pleasure. Except that’s not what you want.

You return to your hometown of Villa Park and visit California’s most frayed neighborhoods to get out the word to the state’s poorest workers that they can get money from the state and feds. It’s not a handout. Only people who earn income qualify.

“I want to end poverty in California,” Joseph N. Sanberg said.

I don’t know what a person who wants to end poverty looks like. But I don’t picture a Gen-Xer in a blue blazer and khaki pants. But here he is, telling me, for the better part of two hours over a glass of wine, which he barely touched, what drives him.

“I’m not ignorant of how freaking hard it is going to be,” he said. “And you know what? Maybe we won’t achieve it in full. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set lofty goals and try.”

Sanberg has surrounded himself with high-end consultants and lobbyists. They helped persuade Gov. Jerry Brown to approve $380 million to fund something called an earned income tax credit, though I’m not sure it was a tough sell.

Now, using $1.5 million of Sanberg’s money and more that they’ve raised, they’ve embarked on an effort to inform the working poor how they can claim what by law is due them; they’ll announce details of the campaign later this week.

Poverty is, we’re told, intractable. Sanberg doesn’t buy it. Having been thinking – no, obsessing – about it, he believes there are solutions. One is the earned income tax credit. The name is wooden, perhaps because it dates to a time before everything was focus-grouped.

As part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1969, a commission produced a report, “Poverty Amid Plenty, The American Paradox.” To lift the working poor out of poverty, it recommended creating a “universal income supplement.” Jerry Brown has a connection to that commission. Pat Brown was a member.

Under a different name, Congress approved the credit when Gerald Ford was president in 1975. Ronald Reagan made it more generous as part of his 1986 tax package. Barack Obama has urged Congress to expand it, though because Obama wants it, Congress may let it expire.

With the addition of California, 26 states have versions of the tax credit. The notion is simple, part of its beauty. If you work but make little money, especially if you have a few kids, Uncle Sam will send you a check, as will Jerry Brown starting in 2016.

The more you earn, within the limit, the larger the check. If you’re part of a family of four, and earn $13,380 or less, you could get a California credit worth upward of $1,000. About 600,000 Californians will qualify for a state check.

The federal income requirements aren’t as strict; 3.1 million California workers receive the federal credit, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. All they have to do is file a tax return. All Sanberg has to do is get the word out that they must file a return.

For that, he has hired a team that includes Ricki Seidman, a mentor of his at Harvard and a veteran of campaigns and politicians from Mondale and Kennedy to Clinton and Obama. Another is Sacramento attorney Karen Skelton, a Clinton White House veteran, and lobbyist Bob Giroux, a Capitol denizen who knows all its crannies and nooks.

Sanberg and his team of organizers have visited Fresno, Bakersfield, Boyle Heights and South Central Los Angeles, meeting with locals willing to get the word to Californians who will be eligible for a tax credit. Is he running for office, I asked later.

“How I spend my life in the future will be determined by how I judge I can have the greatest positive impact on increasing opportunity and improving the quality of life for those who are too often forgotten,” he answered.

Why would he care? Sanberg’s father took off when he was a kid. When he was in high school, the family lost its home to foreclosure.

“It is something that millions of families experience,” he said of his childhood difficulties. “I don’t think it makes me special.”

He was special enough to get into Harvard in 1997, interested enough in public affairs that he became president of Harvard College Democrats, and talented enough that he landed on Wall Street in 2000, first at the Blackstone Group, and then Tiger Global Management, where he helped rich people make more money.

“So many economic rewards accrued to so many people who created so little value, including me, through my time on Wall Street. I struggle with that,” he said.

He was on Wall Street during the crash. While most of us watched in horror as our retirement accounts withered and many of us lost jobs and homes, the 1 percent made a killing. “Heads, they win; tails, they win,” he explains. By 2009, Sanberg had had enough. Enough money. Enough Wall Street.

“I’m really fortunate to be rich,” he said. “I’m mindful of how much luck and chance play a role in that. I’m not deserving of it. I don’t think anyone is deserving of being rich or poor.”

Luck and chance, perhaps. But maybe it wasn’t random. That’s where his faith, Judaism, comes in, and the concept of Tikkun Olam, healing the world, addressing suffering.

“It can’t have been so random that I made this money at a young point in my life. My interpretation is that it comes with a responsibility to apply those resources to humans who are suffering,” he said.

He doesn’t expect to make a nickel by helping poor people claim the credit, though he does have various moneymaking ventures. In those, however, the goal is not to squeeze out every dime. At 36, he figures he has 30 or 40 years to implement his vision of a state without poverty.

“If I obsess over fixing poverty in California and I get lucky bounces and make some good choices, in 30 years it is going to look a lot different,” Sanberg said.

Sanberg’s opening line is familiar. Upton Sinclair created an End Poverty in California movement and ran for governor in 1934. It hasn’t worked yet. But if you’re some Joe with lots of money, you could buy fancy cars, or try to help the poor, and the latter’s not bad.