California is a state of contradictions. We are the richest state in the country, but we have the highest poverty rate. We’re home to some of the most successful companies in the world, with more billionaires living here than all but two countries, but we have more homeless residents than anywhere in America.
It doesn’t have to be this way. California’s poverty problem is a policy choice, and it persists because of a fundamental distrust of poor people and institutions that historically have not met people where they are.
When I was mayor of Stockton, we worked to pilot a direct cash-benefit program that gave $500 a month to randomly selected individuals living in a neighborhood with a median income at or lower than the city’s median income of $46,033 a year. Program recipients received money with no strings attached. No drug tests. No work requirements.
At the end of the two-year pilot, we saw reduced income volatility, lower rates of depression and more full-time employment, despite there being no work requirements. The program was heralded as an innovative policy. But it shouldn’t have been. Policies that cut through red tape and support people living in poverty in a manner that centers their dignity shouldn’t be exceptional. They should be the norm.
California’s social safety net has historically been hard to access. Complex application requirements create confusion. Unnecessarily intrusive questions make people feel shame. Gaps in eligibility and insufficient funding leave behind people like domestic violence survivors, the formerly incarcerated, people exiting homelessness, former foster youth, undocumented families and gig workers — exactly those our safety net should be catching.
The safety net should be there when the system fails to create economic opportunity or when people are unable to find work. But the truth is, the safety net shouldn’t even be the primary tool we use to reduce poverty. It should be our poverty-fighting tool of last resort.
This month, Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality issued a new report confirming that idea. It found that a successful anti-poverty campaign must fix the existing social safety net so that it reaches everyone it is intended to help. And it needs to overhaul things like the criminal justice system, the education system and the housing market to level the playing field and stop poverty before it begins.
As the report lays out, a long history of economic and racial discrimination caused inequalities to be built into these systems, ensuring that people living in poverty stay there. Historically, Black and brown people — who are far more likely to live in poverty — have been excluded from Social Security and New Deal protections, denied mortgages through redlining and blocked from accessing capital to start a small business. These inequalities demand root-cause fixes to rebuild the state’s labor markets, justice system and housing markets to create an inclusive and fair economy for all.
We can start with solutions like baby bonds for every child, so they automatically have savings when they become an adult; reviving wage boards that bring workers, employers and government together to set fair wages and workplace conditions; bolstering union organizing; expanding the supply of affordable housing through changes to zoning laws and deepening our commitment to second chances through high-quality education during incarceration.
But these policy changes will only be possible if we also replace the current American poverty narrative that blames poor people with a new, authentic one that blames poverty on what I call “the setup”: systems and policies that create and sustain poverty like mass incarceration, lack of access to affordable housing and exclusionary red tape to block access to benefits.
It will take work to shift that narrative and “upset the setup” to build the political will to make change. So long as leaders view poverty as a consequence of individual failures rather than policy failures, the status quo will remain unchanged.
We now have the data to prove that America’s false poverty narrative is as baseless as it is pervasive. If you look at policies that provide unconditional cash assistance to poor Americans, the evidence shows that it works. Poor people spend their money wisely, and not just in Stockton.
Just consider the expanded Child Tax Credit signed into law by President Biden, which delivered monthly payments to the families of more than 60 million kids. According to data from the Census Bureau, 91% of low-income families used their Child Tax Credit payments for basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, utilities or education. The result? Child poverty rates were on track to drop by nearly 40% in the nation — with the potential to lift 613,000 California kids out of poverty — before Congress failed to renew the program.
The Child Tax Credit and Stockton’s direct-cash benefit program are clear evidence that when people are given the agency and resources to improve their lives, they do. Poverty isn’t a consequence of individual choices, it’s a consequence of our collective choice to leave millions of Californians behind — and then blame them.
No one in the Golden State should live in poverty and everyone should have a real opportunity to define their own lives. If people-made policies created poverty, then people-made policies can end it.
By Michael Tubbs
San Francisco Chronicle
Michael Tubbs is the former mayor of Stockton and the founder of End Poverty in California, a nonprofit organization working to end poverty in California.