THE BLOG

When Will Gov. Brown Wage a War on Poverty?

01/17/2014 10:51 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2014

California Gov. Jerry Brown announced his new budget last week, almost 50 years to the day after the nation's highest officials undertook a decidedly ambitious effort to radically reduce inequality in America. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty, he created public investment programs intended to lift the poorest among us in ways that would ultimately serve the larger society's and economy's interests. The anniversary strikes a chord because California certainly needs a war on poverty today.

Over the past five years, poverty has increased significantly in California, to the point that the incidence of poverty in our state is the highest in the nation (24 percent, according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account living expenses such as rent, clothing and food).

One in four of our state's children is living in poverty. Yes, the job market is slowly recovering, but one in three single mothers is barely making ends meet. That's because as recently as 2012, women's employment gains lagged behind those of men, and the jobs available to single mothers are often part-time and minimum- or low-wage. The result is that in California, women, especially women of color and immigrant women, are disproportionately living in poverty. Shamefully, our poverty rate is growing at seven times the rate of the nation's poverty rate.

Yet Gov. Brown did not declare a war on poverty. Why not? The national war on poverty was a success. From 1964 to the early 1980s, this bipartisan endeavor, launched by President Johnson and then expanded by President Richard Nixon, included public investments in early childhood development programs, health insurance programs for the elderly and the poor, cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits, food stamps for needy families, and affirmative action programs in hiring. These programs sharply reduced the worst impacts and rates of poverty for the elderly, children and families.

The problem is that it didn't go far enough. In recent decades, based largely on conservative claims, starting in the late 1970s, that these social investments had created a welfare state in America, the federal government has significantly reduced its active commitment to poverty reduction and upward mobility for the nation's most vulnerable people.

California's staggering poverty rate reflects similar disinvestment. California once had a good system of safety net programs that was proven to be successful in helping people move out of poverty. Unfortunately, over the last 30 years, particularly since the Great Recession, those programs, such as CalWORKs (California's welfare-to-work program) and subsidized childcare for working mothers, have been severely cut. Meanwhile, wages have stagnated for all but the wealthiest Californians. According to the California Budget Project, between 1987 and 2010, more than three quarters of the total income gains in California went to just the top 10 percent of taxpayers.

Much of today's poverty is rooted in structural inequalities that systematically preclude upward mobility for most women and children, racial minorities, immigrants and seniors. Robust public programs and innovative private ventures that invest in families help dismantle the systems that make it almost impossible for impoverished families to get access to the tools of upward mobility, such as higher education and well-paying jobs that allow for asset building. For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that a sustained increase of $3,000 annually has been linked to a 17-percent increase in annual earnings when economically vulnerable children reach adulthood.

After devastating budget deficits, we are now in a position to recommit to public investments. We recognize the importance of Proposition 30, proposed by Gov. Brown and supported in 2012 by the people of California, which has led to our projected budget surplus of $3.2 billion. We commend Gov. Brown and the legislature for last year's work of raising the minimum wage and raising the CalWORKs cash assistance grant by 5 percent. But given the fact that California is one of the most expensive states in the nation, these actions are simply not enough to reverse the trend of increased impoverishment that shortchanges individual families of a chance to do well and robs our state of talent. The governor's proposed budget offers very little to those families living in extreme poverty.

As California regains fiscal solvency, we can't leave out our state's poorest. We must seize this real opportunity in California to declare a new war on poverty by investing a larger portion of our budget surplus in a way that allows us to A) support high-functioning safety net programs that sustain families during periods of unemployment and enable them to afford basic necessities, and B) build a workforce development system that trains people with lower incomes for good jobs in the future.

Doing so will put us back on course to lessening inequality and strengthening California and, in turn, our country.

Judy Patrick is President and CEO of the Women's Foundation of California. Henry A. J. Ramos is President and CEO of the Insight Center for Community and Economic Development.