Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
January 17, 2016 – 9:06 AM

  • Millions of people in state are mired in poverty
  • Caring for their needs costs $200 billion a year
  • But politicians wrangle over whether it’s enough

Gov. Jerry Brown was still explaining his new budget to reporters on Jan. 7 when advocates for the poor, who didn’t like what he was saying, began firing email blasts.

Although billions of unanticipated dollars were pouring into the state treasury, Brown was still preaching caution about spending them, preferring to divert an extra $2 billion into the rainy-day fund he had persuaded voters to create.

The state would need reserves, he warned, to cushion an inevitable downturn in the economy.

“Everything that goes up comes down,” he said, adding, “There’s a tendency to do everything, and I’ll have to straighten it out at the end.”

To advocates for early childhood education, health care for the undocumented poor, homeless housing and welfare payments, Brown’s remarks smacked of indifference.

“While heavily emphasizing growing the reserves, the governor’s proposal misses several opportunities to strengthen vital public services and systems,” the left-leaning California Budget and Policy Center declared in a typical response. “It includes only modest increases for higher education – a key to the state’s economic future – no significant reinvestment in child care, and no additional investment in a welfare-to-work system that was deeply cut in recent years.”

It would be fair to say that the vast majority of Brown’s fellow Democrats in the Legislature agree with his critics, setting up what is likely to be the major conflict over the budget this year. For instance, the incoming speaker of the Assembly, Anthony Rendon, is a passionate advocate of expanding early childhood education. Brown’s new budget consolidates, but freezes, spending on that program.

It’s not a new conflict. From the onset of Brown’s second governorship in 2011, he’s been reluctant to expand “safety net” services to the poor, openly fearing that new entitlements would lead to deep budget deficits during the next recession and privately fearing that a major legacy goal – stabilizing the state’s boom-and-bust finances – could crumble.

Brown slashed social and health services deeply in his first budget, and left little doubt that he intended the “retrenchment” to be permanent. Ever since – even when revenues jumped from an improving economy and his temporary tax increase – he has insisted that K-12 schools and reserves have the highest priorities.

Brown also has been more than a little defensive on the issue. “California has an extensive safety net for the state’s neediest residents who live in poverty and the state has maintained those core benefits despite the recession,” his new budget declares.

The politics of poverty have become more contentious because California’s recovery from the Great Recession has revealed the state’s increasingly stark economic disparities.

Although unemployment has dropped to less than half of what it was during the depths of the recession, California still has millions of impoverished residents – far more, proportionately, than any other state, according to the alternative measure of poverty the Census Bureau devised a few years ago that has become widely accepted as being more accurate.

24 Percentage of state residents living in poverty under a Census Bureau measure that takes cost of living into account

California’s “official” poverty rate, 16 percent, is only slightly higher than the nation’s, but by the alternative measure, which includes the cost of living, it’s nearly 24 percent of the state’s residents, or about 9 million people.

In reality, it could be even much higher.

To read expanded column, click here.