Living in poverty is hard. If anyone knows that it’s Jessica Bartholow, with the Western Center on Law & Poverty.
“There were times we went without food. We moved a lot because we couldn’t afford rent,” she said.
Bartholow grew up in a working-class family in Northern California. But then her father got injured and began to struggle with addiction. Her mom began working less so she could take care of him. Before long, the family could no longer make ends meet.
“We went bankrupt because there were medical emergencies that couldn’t be paid for,” she said. “There were medical emergencies that we didn’t seek help for.”
Bartholow says the goal for the next governor shouldn’t be to make poverty more bearable for people through assistance programs — it should be to end poverty completely. In California nearly 2 million kids, or 20 percent, live in poverty.
And while Bartholow said the situation is dire, the current governor’s race gives her some hope.
“We have candidates who have long-standing campaign goals to address poverty,” she said. “We have candidates who have stepped forward in a big way to call for the end of childhood poverty.”
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa grew up poor. He said he’d take on child poverty in several ways, including scrutinizing the state’s welfare system, known as CalWORKS.
“I intend to focus on early child education, critical, on universal preschool, on full-day kindergarten,” he said. “I think we need to make sure CalWORKS is working for people.”
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom believes intervention needs to start between the ages of zero and 3 to ensure kids are ready for school.
“When our state and society allows kids to waste their God-given potential because they aren’t given the tools to succeed, then we are only hurting ourselves,” Newsom said. “Ending childhood poverty will be the North Star of my administration because it’s the right thing to do.”
State Treasure John Chiang said California has an obligation to address childhood poverty and that he would take a comprehensive approach.
“I strongly support the Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Act, as well as robust investments in home visiting programs, after-school and summer school programs, workforce development and affordable housing,” he said. “I also strongly support free child care and universal pre-kindergarten that provide children with every opportunity to succeed and achieve the American Dream, and school meal and summer food programs that address hunger and food security in our communities.”
Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin has an eight-point plan to address child poverty. It includes getting homeless children off the streets, building more affordable housing, offering three months of fully paid maternity leave and providing access to child care and universal preschool.
“Child care and preschool costs as much as rent or college in California,” she said. “So we need to take away this burden from poor families, while offering young children from all economic backgrounds the chance for their best start.”
Of course, paying for all these noble ideas is the hard part.
When candidates or advocates talk about “changing priorities,” that means spending less on something else. But what?
Republican businessman John Cox says California’s Democratic leaders are waging a war on the poor and middle class.
“Our schools are failing underprivileged children because the politicians care more about teacher union contributions than they do about kids,” he said. “They disproportionately attack the poor with regressive gas and sales taxes, while imposing regulations that have made it impossible to build affordable housing.”
Two other Republican candidates — Assemblyman Travis Allen and former congressman Doug Ose — did not reply to a request for comment by publication time.
Alissa Anderson, senior policy analyst with the California Budget & Policy Center, said there are a number of good policy options for reducing child poverty in the state.
“Among the best approaches would be further strengthening the California Earned Income Tax Credit to reach more working families and provide larger credits,” she said, “increasing CalWORKs grants to help families moving from welfare to work, and funding more early care and education slots, which would free up family income for other expenses and help mitigate poverty’s effects on children.”
Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, is thrilled the candidates are talking about poverty. He says increasing access to affordable child care, expanding state-funded preschool and transitional kindergarten, and connecting more new parents with home visiting programs are critical. But perhaps the most crucial element is ensuring the campaign trail talk translates to action.
“These are not insurmountable problems,” he said. “Let’s band together and really prioritize solving this because the resources are there, just our prioritization is off.”
Lempert said between a projected state budget surplus and some potential tax measures, the state should be able to direct more money toward ending child poverty. He and other advocates are hopeful California’s next governor will do just that.