An open letter to Gavin Newsom: Address California’s poverty

A pair of homeless men asking for money on a Los Angeles street corner. (Photo: Hayk_Shalunts, via Shutterstock)

California has long stood out as a state that innovates and leads. As you begin your term, we at the Western Center on Law and Poverty are ready to work with you to ensure that California lives up to its ideals — including addressing poverty and its subsequent harms.

We are encouraged by your focus on three issues Western Center has worked on for decades and considers critical to advancing basic human rights: ending poverty, solving the housing crisis, and health care for all.

Almost two million children in California live in poverty, 450,000 of whom live in “deep poverty” (about $12,000 a year for a family of four).

Each of these issues presents an enduring challenge that can be addressed by your administration. We do not simply wish to raise the alarm about the state’s problems — we offer help and solutions.

Western Center advocates on behalf of individuals with low incomes in all branches of government—from the courts to the Legislature. Our ideas come directly from problems low-income Californians experience every day; we propose practical solutions that can be taken to scale in our large and diverse state.

Ending Poverty
With the resources of the 5th largest world economy and your experienced leadership, we see no reason for California to continue on with the highest rate of poverty in the United States. Almost two million children in California live in poverty, 450,000 of whom live in “deep poverty” (about $12,000 a year for a family of four).

California’s Lifting Children Out of Poverty Task Force recently released a report with recommendations for ending child poverty in California, and it lays out immediate actions to end childhood deep poverty. We hope you will encourage the adoption of the recommendations as a crucial first step to ensure that no child in our state suffers as a result of poverty.

Seniors and people with disabilities are also particularly at risk of experiencing poverty. Ten years ago, budget cuts pushed one million Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients in California below the poverty level, and they remain there today. Those cuts contributed to the rising number of people living in cars or on the street. SSI funding must be restored, and recipients allowed to receive CalFresh benefits.

Additionally, we urge you to stay the course to end the high costs of poverty by reducing or eliminating the high fees and fines associated with the criminal justice system, traffic courts, parking tickets and vehicle towing.

Housing and Homelessness
The housing crisis for low-income Californians has reached a state of emergency, and it will take a multi-pronged approach to solve it. Our legal service programs are seeing unprecedented numbers of people losing their homes to soaring rents and displacement.

As we work to increase the housing supply, we must make sure Californians with the lowest incomes maintain housing now so another generation doesn’t get stuck in the cycle of poverty. We need to increase protections for tenants by reforming Costa-Hawkins, closing loopholes in the Ellis Act, requiring good cause for eviction, and reforming the unlawful detainer process. Additionally, we must mandate strong, clear, and enforceable anti-displacement protections for new development.

California can expand access to existing housing by prohibiting discrimination against voucher holders, and creating state subsidies to allow affordable housing providers to serve low-income households while maintaining quality housing. This would also fill the gap for immigrant households who can’t access federal programs.

There must be a focus on increasing housing supplies at income levels where the shortage is most acute. This can be done by increasing funding for the construction, rehabilitation, and preservation of affordable housing, and ensuring that land use changes to increase development are accompanied by affordability requirements.

Finally, we must address exclusionary zoning practices that uphold patterns of residential segregation and negatively impact low-income households and people of color.

Homelessness in California won’t end without a drastic increase in deeply affordable housing—both with and without supportive services. However, no solution will be complete without requiring all levels of government to gather data on who is becoming homeless and why, and which solutions have long-term success.

It is crucial that the approach to addressing homelessness focuses on access to stable, affordable housing, rather than criminalizing those who are homeless.

Health Care
California has done an excellent job implementing the Affordable Care Act, but the work is not finished. Many people still don’t have care, and even more pay too much for the care they have. The quality of services must improve so all Californians get the care they need, and we need to maintain or increase federal funding to make that happen.

We applaud your call to create a single payer system, and look forward to working with you to persuade the federal government to create the mechanisms to accomplish it. In the meantime, full health care access for Californians in poverty is within reach if we expand Medi-Cal to all low-income Californians, regardless of immigration status or age. We must also ensure that Medi-Cal managed plans provide access to quality care, and invest in enrollment and retention assistance so California’s gains are not lost in the face of federal attempts to sabotage our health system.

We congratulate you on your victory, and we look forward to working with you on these issues.

Editor’s Note: For a half century, the nonprofit 
Western Center on Law & Poverty has advocated on behalf of secure housing, health care, racial justice, economic equity and a strong safety net for low-income Californians.    

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