It has been called “the opportunity gap,” America’s growing divide between the haves and the have nots. When he was sworn in as the 70th Speaker of the State Assembly last week Anthony Rendon referred to it as the “single biggest shadow on the Golden State.” His inaugural gift to his colleagues was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and a bookmark with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s quote: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Later that week I sat in a room full of UC Riverside students, faculty, and concerned citizens and listened to an enlightening and inspiring lecture by Professor Robert Putnam, one of our nation’s most prominent public intellectuals, on how to solve America’s poverty problem. Just that morning I was at Community Action Partnership of San Bernardino County’s Poverty Symposium. It’s not an exaggeration to say the issue of poverty is top of mind.
Professor Putnam’s latest research interest is poverty in America, and the result is his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. “We are moving toward a hereditary class structure,” he said, “as the gap between the rich and poor widens.” Poverty, he explained, is the most serious long-term domestic problem of the United States. Since the 1970’s we have made progress in other inequities but have become increasingly divided over class lines and more segregated in social and economic class terms. Most of those living in poverty come from fragile families overwhelmingly led by single mothers, most without safety nets. Many of these families are living on low wages with challenges in finding affordable housing and affordable childcare.
In San Bernardino County the problem is acute. According to a recent comprehensive needs assessment, while the county’s economic conditions are improving and showing positive signs of recovery, poverty is increasing, with childhood poverty higher than the State average. And a quarter of those families have an employed parent. They are the working poor. The poverty threshold for a family of four in the US is $23,624 and median personal earnings in San Bernardino County are $27,478 compared to the State average at $30,155. A minimum wage full-time worker’s monthly pre-tax pay is a little over $1,700. The average rent in San Bernardino is $1,100 per month. In many cases childcare is the next costliest household expense, even more than food and transportation.
Professor Putnam told us the solution to narrowing the opportunity gap lies with us and cited history, “we solved it before…we can do it again.” He referenced the “Gilded Age” in America when we had a society of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Then after the publication of How The Other Half Lives, a book of photojournalism exposing the horrendous living conditions in New York City tenements, reforms were enacted, including improved housing and working conditions as well as the proliferation of public high schools. “The public high school was the best public policy decision America ever made,” he said, “it doubled our productivity and leveled the playing field.”
His challenge to us: Find the 21st century equivalent of the high school.
One answer, policy experts agree, is the Earned Income Tax Credit. Since its inception in 1975 and expansion in 1993, the Earned Income Tax Credit has helped millions of low-income working Americans. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2013 the credit helped lift more than six million Americans out of poverty…the majority of them children. Sasha Abramsky, San Bernardino Poverty Symposium keynote speaker and author of The American Way of Poverty: How The Other Half Still Lives devotes a chapter to this anti-poverty solution. To boost the economic security of the working poor, he writes, “let’s do so by expanding and protecting the extra income generated by the Earned Income Tax Credit.”
A movement I’m proud to be a part of here in California.
On Sunday I spent the day in Los Angeles churches with Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, newly appointed chair of the Assembly Committee on Revenue and Taxation and Joe Sanberg, entrepreneur who led the effort to institute California’s first Earned Income Tax Credit and whose Golden State Opportunity Foundation is working tirelessly across the state to inform hardworking Californians of this new opportunity to bridge the gap by putting much needed financial resources back into their households. The California Earned Income Tax Credit, like its federal counterpart, is designed to help those who make less than a living wage and lift them out of poverty.
Over the next few weeks I will be working with the CalEITC4me team on events throughout the state, including a large free tax prep community event on April 2nd at Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino hosted by Assemblymember Cheryl Brown. There some of our hardworking families can get their taxes prepared for free, leaving more money for the important things their families need. Hopefully, we can help “lift the shadow” and allow the sun to shine on even more families in the Golden State.