California’s state budget is a primary funding source for many public services and systems that support working families and help them climb the economic ladder. Unfortunately, many of these areas of public investment remain underfunded and undersupported today. One example is California’s subsidized child care system, which helps parents work more hours by giving them affordable child care options. Funding for child care and preschool programs remains nearly one-third below the pre-recession level. Other areas, such as assistance for low-income seniors and people with disabilities (SSI/SSP) and the state’s system of public higher education, also are undersupported even as the state’s revenues surpass where they were before the budget shortfalls caused by the Great Recession.
Providing support for economic security and opportunity is especially important given that so many in California are still struggling in the current recovery. While California’s economy has improved markedly since the worst years of the Great Recession, many regions are still coping with high rates of poverty and joblessness. For these parts of the state, it still feels like California is in a recession.
The latest county-level Census figures on poverty drive home this point. These figures combine poverty estimates from the American Community Survey with other administrative data to generate estimates of poverty for smaller geographic areas. (This process results in statewide poverty rates that differ from those published last fall.) The new data show that 16.8 percent of all Californians, and 23.5 percent of all California children, lived in poverty in 2013. In other words, nearly one in four California children lived in households with incomes below the federal poverty line ($23,624 for a family of four with two children in 2013). Within California there are large disparities among regions (see table). While counties in the San Francisco Bay Area all had poverty rates that were lower than the state average, counties in the San Joaquin Valley all had above-average rates of poverty and child poverty. Fresno County had the highest rates of poverty in 2013, with 28.6 percent of all people living in poverty and 42.0 percent of all children living in poverty.
Unemployment also remains worryingly high in regions throughout California. In the third quarter of 2014 (the last full quarter for which data are available), 11 counties had unemployment rates in the double digits, and more than half of these counties were in the San Joaquin Valley. The county with the highest unemployment rate was Imperial County in the southern part of the state, where more than one in four workers (26.9 percent) were unemployed.
Poverty and unemployment are just two measures of an economy’s health, yet other measures of economic well-being — such as income or food insecurity — also show that California’s recovery is not leading to economic gains for many families. Again, such measures show a large regional disparity and a California that is deeply segmented not just along income levels, but by geographic area as well.
When Governor Brown releases his proposed 2015-16 budget this week, there is likely to be a large focus on an “either/or” choice between responsible budgeting and committing more state dollars to underfunded programs. This is a false choice given the economic realities faced by many Californians today. The 2015-16 budget that is eventually enacted must start to address on-the-ground economic conditions in much of California. This means that the state budget must take on issues of poverty and joblessness and help boost an economy that is leaving many Californians behind.
— Luke Reidenbach