At the very end of his State of the State address to the Legislature last week, Gov. Jerry Brown – almost as an afterthought – tersely declared, “We have too many struggling families . . .”
Well, yes, we do. In fact, according to an alternate Census Bureau method of calculating poverty that includes cost of living, nearly a quarter of Californians are mired in poverty, the highest rate of any state.
One would think that fact would have rated more than a throwaway line from the governor as he delivered a report on “the condition of the state.”
However, Brown was into election-year positivism, hailing what he called a “California comeback,” in a speech clearly aimed at setting the stage for his bid for another term. Dwelling on negatives, such as poverty, wasn’t on the agenda.
Nor, as Brown crowed about California’s gaining a million new jobs, would he talk about its million-plus still-unemployed workers and its unemployment rate, one of the nation’s highest.
The hard fact is that California’s recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression has been slow and spotty, concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area and a few other coastal enclaves, while recession-like conditions remain in much of the state.
Conversely, however, that doesn’t exempt the prosperous pockets from poverty.
The Public Policy Institute of California, using methodology similar to that of the Census Bureau, calculated local poverty rates and found, surprisingly, that high-income counties in the Bay Area also tend to have very high rates of poverty because of their sky-high living costs, especially for housing.
Another bit of data, interestingly, comes from Brown’s own program of shifting more school aid into districts with high numbers of poor and/or English-learner students.
Nearly 60 percent of our six million K-12 students qualify as poor because they are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals due to low family incomes.
So California, the richest state in the nation, has a big poverty problem that its governor doesn’t deign to acknowledge. And he took some rhetorical flak for that lapse from both Republicans, including two who want to succeed him, and Democrats – not that they agree on what to do about it.
Democrats would have the state ramp up spending on welfare and other “safety net” services while Republicans contend that making the state more amenable to job-creating private investment would be a better approach.
A third path would be to ameliorate, to the extent possible, the cost-of-living factors that heavily affect poverty rates.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him as [email protected]