How did we get here? It’s because our priorities were wrong. We prioritized prison spending over education and the safety net; we prioritized deficit reduction over the growing rate of poverty; we consistently ignored the tough realities of those most hurt by the recession. And, unsurprisingly, California’s poverty rate grew seven times faster than the national rate over the last five years, from 6 million to 8.7 million people living in poverty.
California has had a good system of safety-net programs that have been proven to work at reducing poverty. Unfortunately over the last 30 years, particularly since the Great Recession, those policies have been weakened, undercut or underfunded. At the same time, the cost of living has skyrocketed while the wages stagnated for all but the wealthiest Californians.
Take, for example, CalWORKs (California’s welfare-to-work program). In 2013, the maximum CalWORKs cash grant for a family of three (a mother and two children) was $638 per month. That’s a pittance considering that the average monthly rent for a family of three in a city like Los Angeles is double that amount.
And that’s only half of the story. The real shocker is that this cash amount has remained virtually unchanged for 25 years: in 1988, a family of three received $633 per month.
How is that possible? It’s because the CalWORKs cash grants have not kept pace with inflation. They have been repeatedly cut and the cost-of living adjustments have been repeatedly suspended. As a result, the cash grants today are worth half of their 1988 value. As a matter of fact, today’s grant would have to be raised to $1,399 to have the same purchasing and poverty-fighting power it did 25 years ago.