Let’s start with the good news: California now has a governor who is making cornerstone investments in the tools that alleviate poverty.
He has doubled the California Earned Income Tax Credit (Cal EITC), a program that every economist loves because it puts money back into the pockets of low-income working people while stimulating the local, often underserved, economies where they live. He has massively boosted state funds for early childhood education while expanding California’s Paid Family Leave Program.
These positive steps ease but do not erase the harsh reality of poverty in California.
Our state has a poverty rate of 18 percent, well above the national average, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau. Analysis by the California Budget & Policy Center shows that 7.1 million — or 1 out of every 6 — Californians live in poverty.
Thanks to a comprehensive study on poverty in Santa Barbara County, spearheaded by then-Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who now represents us in Congress, we know the last recession in 2008 increased poverty for county residents by 52 percent, and 61 percent for children.
For too many county residents, a recovery never came. The poverty rate now is 3 percent higher than it was when the study was written in 2013.
According to recent data from the Public Policy Institute of California, Santa Barbara County has a poverty rate of 22 percent, the second highest in the state behind only Los Angeles County.
This is unacceptable.
One out of four of our fellow Santa Barbara County neighbors can’t afford their basic needs — housing, health care, food, shelter and transportation. And far too many children in this county go to school without the support they need to thrive; a devastating 13 percent of them are homeless.
Additionally, our colleges and universities are full of local students who are food insecure and rely on the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County to fuel their brains.
To ensure the investments Gov. Gavin Newsom is making in the social safety net have the maximal impact here in Santa Barbara County, and to help inoculate our local communities against another looming recession, we must work strategically to see that these investments have the maximal impact here. Research shows that safety net programs such as CalFresh (food) and Cal EITC (cash) are keeping another 7 percent of Californians out of poverty.
With this injection of new sources of revenue for important programs from the state it’s time to pick up where the county poverty study left off and make sure Santa Barbara County is moving forward on the recommendations it made six years ago.
One place to start is increasing participation in the Cal EITC, the cash-back program that allows eligible workers to claim thousands of dollars per year. The IRS estimates that each year only 1 in 5 people eligible for this state and federal credit actually claim it, leaving billions of dollars on the table.
This year alone in Santa Barbara County, nearly 19,000 working families claimed $3.3 million in this tax credit, which is a good jump up over years past, but still far from full enrollment. Because they are unaware this credit exists, thousands of hard-working local families are missing out on state and federal money they have earned — and essential funds that will help them make ends meet.
The county could make full enrollment a priority and reach out to those families who qualify. For example, elected officials and nonprofit leaders in San Bernardino County have teamed up in recent years and have more than quadrupled the number of their residents who claim the Cal EITC.
The same is true of CalFresh enrollment. In 2013, there were 21,880 Santa Barbara County households receiving CalFresh. That figure has actually fallen slightly during the last six years to 21,075 households, even as poverty has increased.
The poverty report found the CalFresh participation rate in mid-county, Santa Barbara and Lompoc, was only 7 percent, as much as three times lower than elsewhere in the county, “suggesting the need for significantly more outreach.”
Better coordinated and more effective outreach to boost participation in safety-net programs is one of the most inexpensive recommendations in the 2013 report. This would be a good starting point as we work to build more resilient communities with the financial security to weather another recession.
Santa Barbara County is known for its strong sense of community and compassionate citizens who support the high proportion of nonprofit organizations dedicated to improving its future. As we brace for possible financial disruption, those who are currently living in poverty — or teetering on the edge — need to be more connected to the safety-net programs already in place.
It is vital to strengthen the good efforts that exist, revisit the smart recommendations of the county’s poverty study — beginning with effective outreach — and put in motion innovative strategies that will reverse our high-poverty status and help more of our neighbors afford life’s basic needs.
— Laura Capps is vice president of the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education and a candidate for Santa Barbara County First District supervisor. The opinions expressed are her own.