Progressives look to shame Gov. Brown over high rate of child poverty

When Jerry Brown returned to the governor’s office in 2011, Democrats largely accepted his argument that with revenue down and deficits high because of a deep recession, the state budget needed to be as lean as possible. But since revenue rebounded and the governor’s focus has continued to be more on socking away billions of dollars in an expanded state rainy-day fund than on boosting progressive programs, lawmakers’ griping has grown steadily.

Now, as Brown prepares for the final “May revise” of his career, some Democrats’ frustration is boiling over. In a bid to get the governor to drop his opposition to more generous state welfare benefits in his $132 billion 2018-19 budget, they’re planning to depict him as indifferent to and callous about child poverty.

The focus of the fight is the CalWORKS program, which provides cash aid to eligible families with one or more children. Household income and family size are the key factors in determining eligibility. The same factors, and whether any family members have special needs, are evaluated in setting how much help they get from CalWORKS.

But as a recent Los Angeles Times report noted, the payment scale has not been adjusted for inflation for years — meaning the effective spending power of CalWORKS’ payments is down 37 percent since 2007.

To hammer home the hardship faced by CalWORKS recipients — and to make the case for Brown accepting annual cost-of-living increases to CalWORKS payments — Assembly Democrats recently arranged for Rochella Mendoza, a 31-year-old single mother from the Bay Area, to testify before a budget subcommittee. She said the $600 she got monthly from CalWORKS couldn’t cover basic needs and worried that her son would be scarred by the “shame and humiliation” of poverty just as she was growing up, the Times reported.

While the effort by lawmakers to depict Brown as hard-hearted is new, advocates for the poor have gone after the state in general for years for — in their view — tolerating unusually high levels of child poverty. A 2011 HBO documentary (pictured) highlighted this concern with a focus on destitute families in affluent Orange County.

The Census Bureau’s alternative measurement of poverty that includes cost of living shows California as having the highest overall rate in the nation. But narrower measures have also shown high levels of poverty specifically in families with children.

PPIC: 46% of state kids live in poor or near-poor homes

A Public Policy Institute of California report from October 2017 found that 46 percent of children in the state lived in households that were either poor or near poor. The report said more than one-quarter of children met the official definition of living in poverty in counties with nearly half the state’s population, starting with Los Angeles.

The report noted that in the 59th Assembly District, based in South Los Angeles around the 110 Freeway, a staggering 49 percent of children were growing up in impoverished homes – at least those who had shelter. A January 2017 report by the KPCC PBS channel found that the number of CalWORKS families in Los Angeles County who were homeless had tripled from 2005 to 2015. The report quoted Phil Ansell, the head of the county’s efforts to help the homeless, as saying the increase was a direct result of CalWORKS cash assistance not keeping up with the cost of living.

Will such stories and data sway the governor, who has repeatedly warned that a recession is overdue and would create a massive hole for years in future state budgets?

Brown has been characteristically tight-lipped going into budget negotiations. But social service advocates see reasons for hope in the governor’s last-minute concession in budget talks in June 2016. That’s when he agreed to drop a 1996 policy that decreed families receiving CalWORKS assistance couldn’t get more money if they added a child. This led to the state providing an additional $136 or more per month to nearly 100,000 families, according to a Governing magazine account.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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