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California leaders have two weeks to get the state budget right by investing in poverty elimination rather than band aids.

Over the next two weeks, the Governor and Legislature will determine how to spend the state’s $38 billion dollar surplus (closer to $76 billion if you include constitutionally mandated spending). The Governor has requested nearly 400 new spending proposals, many of them one-time investments to be spent over several years. There are many worthy proposals in the Governor’s budget — most demonstrably, a $12 billion commitment to reduce homelessness.

California is one of the wealthiest places on earth. We have more billionaires than any other state and our per capita income ranks 6th among states at over $71,000 a year. California residents, by far, pay the most in federal income taxes, exceeding New York by roughly $90 billion annually. We have a highly progressive state tax structure that asks those with the most to pay more. This wealth provides the largest budget of any state in the nation. But for all its wealth, California has a dark side.

More than one in six children lives in poverty in California. 450,000 California children are estimated to live in households that earn less than half of the abysmally low federal poverty level. This is often referred to as deep poverty. Research shows that children who live in deep poverty experience a form of toxic stress that slows normal brain development, results in lower educational achievement, higher risk of chronic health conditions, and lower earnings as adults.

For decades, California has provided sub-meager grant levels to people who are disabled (Supplemental Security Income (SSI), families with kids (CalWORKs), and indigent single adults (General Relief). For years, CalWORKs grants were worth less than 40 percent of the federal poverty level, at around $700 a month. That’s a program for kids and families living deep poverty, where the family income is less than 50 percent of the poverty level. Due to ridiculously low CalWORKs grants, these families are housing unstable, and must occasionally use homeless services.

Former Senator Holly Mitchell led the effort to increase CalWORKs grant and succeeded when Governor Brown committed to a three-step increase to prevent children on CalWORKs from living in deep poverty. Though Governor Newsom did provide the second of the promised increases, his current budget doesn’t finish the job. It provides an increase that falls short of eliminating deep poverty among children.

To his credit, Governor Newsom gets it. In addition to following through on the second of the CalWORKs grant increases in his first budget, one of his first acts as governor was a refundable $1,000 child tax credit for families in poverty, paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes. Legislators and advocates believed that the dream of ending childhood deep poverty in California would finally happen in the 2020-21 budget, but then COVID hit. Millions of people lost jobs and the state’s revenues plummeted. California could no longer afford to end deep childhood poverty, or so we thought.

As it turns out, the state’s revenues quickly rebounded, since billionaires made so much money during the pandemic. California ended up with the largest surplus in its history.

Even so, Governor Newsom did not include funding to end childhood deep poverty in his 2021 May budget announcement, instead offering a modest, insufficient grant increase for CalWORKs. It is simply unacceptable that one of the richest places on earth will continue to allow children to live in abject poverty.

Similarly, the Governor offered a modest $10 a month increase to SSI recipients who are blind, aged and disabled. Over the past decade, the standard of living for SSI recipients has degraded due to the elimination of state cost of living adjustments and the resistance by successive governors to restore cuts made during the Schwarzenegger and early Brown administrations. California saved over $10 billion with those cuts and kept them in effect even when the state was running substantial surpluses with large reserves.

Against this backdrop, Senate Budget sub-committee #3 considered the Governor’s 2021-22 SSI proposal. The empathetic new chair, Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman, noted that the proposal leaves SSI recipients below the poverty level, and that she is helping a friend living on SSI just to make it month to month. Single, indigent adults leaving the criminal legal system have it even worse, with paltry assistance upon release and $221 in General Relief they can use for housing. In fact, 70% of Californians experiencing homelessness have a history of incarceration. It’s all a recipe for instability.

Governor Newsom really wants to do something about homelessness, which is good, but it doesn’t matter how much we spend on housing and services if we don’t slow the stream of people losing their housing due to poverty.  California is using austerity tactics on people in poverty, getting the same results over and over again. Now we’re funding a $12 billion emergency program to fix the carnage. If we want to end homelessness, we must give people the money they need to stay stably and safely housed.

State governments are afraid to provide benefits it may have to cut down the road and believe that a way to save money is to deny adequate levels of assistance. What legislators fail to see is that the reluctance to spend money upfront causes enormous downstream costs. Homeless services, child welfare, emergency food, and foster care are not free, but require funding at ever increasing amounts. If we simply invested to keep people housed and healthy from the get-go, rather than forcing them to live in a constant state of toxic stress caused by extreme poverty, we might not have that problem.

In the next couple of weeks leading up to the budget deadline, the Legislature has a chance to end this shameful chapter in our history by using this year’s surplus to reverse toxic trends that reinforce poverty. Grants for SSI and CalWORKs should be substantially raised so no one is homeless, and the same level of benefits should be provided to people coming out of the criminal legal system and those on General Relief.

This is California, the 5th largest economy in the world. We can and must do better.


Overlooked SSI recipients facing homelessness & poverty to testify at Capitol to seek relief


People with disabilities and older adults in California face poverty due to
recession-era cuts to bolster Rainy Day fund

Sacramento — Today, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients and advocates head to the State Capitol to meet with legislators and share first-hand testimony about living on SSI at the State Assembly Budget Hearing. The coalition — which includes more than 200 organizations — centers individuals living on SSI in accordance with the disability rights motto “nothing about us without us.”

Today’s delegation was significantly reduced in response to COVID-19 and CDPH’s guidance, as SSI recipients are older adults and/or people living with disabilities — those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“We know there is no substitute for people sharing their first-hand experience of trying to live a healthy and dignified lifestyle on SSI, but we must protect our vulnerable community members. As SSI champions, we will do our best to echo the voices of those who are able to make the trek to Sacramento,” said Andrew Cheyne, director of government affairs for the California Association of Food Banks, a CA4SSI member. “We must restore the recession-era cuts to the state portion of the SSP grant. It is unfair and unjust to balance the budget on the backs of older adults and people with disabilities.”

It is estimated by the Department of Social Services that SSI / SSP grant amounts will be a maximum of $950 beginning January 1, 2020. The 2020 federal poverty level for a single individual is estimated to be $1,056 a month. California has one of the highest rates of senior poverty in the country – almost 50% of people 65 and older have incomes below 200% of the Federal Poverty level.

“Since the 2009 recession, California has kept our SSI payments at an amount that is below the federal poverty level. It’s clear that these dangerously low grant payments are effecting our state’s ability to manage homelessness and poverty,” said Senator Melissa Hurtado. “With Homelessness being one of the top issues that our state faces today, the legislature has an opportunity to restore these dangerous cuts by helping to cover the cost of rent to help low‑income individuals achieve and maintain self‑sufficiency.”

The three key asks of the Coalition include:

  • Support an approximately $100 a month budget augmentation to bring SSI grants to 100% of the federal poverty level for a single recipient.
  • Re-establish the statutory cost of living adjustment for the State Supplemental Payment (SSP) portion of the grant on January 1, 2020.
  • Ensure that recipients of the SNB and the TNB programs are provided the same legal protections that SNAP recipients are currently provided, including protections around churn and replacement benefits during disaster.

“In the time since cuts were made in 2009, over $11 billion has been taken from SSI recipients and put toward the Rainy Day fund and budget surplus,” said Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The state needs to recognize that for people on SSI, rainy days are here now, and with the current housing crisis, restored grant amounts could mean the difference between staying housed and being priced out for recipients across California.”

“It has been a decade since the drastic cuts were made to the SSI/SSP grants. It is time that persons with disabilities and older adults have those cuts restored to narrow this shameful poverty gap left by the cuts. California needs to protect its most financially distressed citizens. We can afford it, and it is the right thing to do,” says Andrew Imperato, executive director at Disability Rights California.


Californians for SSI (CA4SSI) is a statewide coalition of over 200 organizations across the aging, disability rights, housing and homeless, anti-hunger, and anti-poverty sectors. We see the suffering that our most vulnerable residents are facing every day and we seek to ensure that they receive adequate support to live their lives in dignity. For a full list of coalition members, go to:


Courtney McKinney, Western Center on Law & Poverty: cmckinney[at]