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California has the highest rate of poverty in the nation — 20.6 percent. That statistic is true, tragic and shameful. But what is not true is arguments laying blame for our state’s high poverty rate on progressive politicians.

Conservatives would have us believe that California’s poverty crisis is the result of an overly generous welfare system that discourages work, even though our most proven antipoverty program — the Earned Income Tax Credit — is one that rewards work. A vocal proponent of this viewpoint, Kerry Jackson of the Pacific Research Institute, has painted a picture of a system run by self-interested social service workers intent on keeping the poor dependent on state aid.

The problem isn’t a lack of jobs or lack of workers willing to do them — California’s unemployment rate is at an all-time low. It’s that jobs no longer pay enough. For far too many, working 40 hours a week isn’t enough to provide for a family or even to stay out of poverty.

This, not an ineffectual welfare system, is the fundamental problem we face in California: Most people who are working cannot afford life’s basic needs. Nearly 1 out of 2 people couldn’t afford a $400 surprise expense.

Jackson contends, correctly, that the high cost of housing is a key contributor to our state’s poverty crisis. He blames the state’s environmental regulations, but the biggest culprit is Proposition 13.

For decades, Prop. 13 has distorted the housing market by under-taxing high-end properties, shifting the tax burden to the young and the poor as local governments turn to more regressive taxes and fees to make up the difference. And by shielding properties from taxation, California’s tax code incentivizes investment in real estate, contributing to its over-valuation — putting home ownership out of reach for millions of Californians who are instead forced into overpriced rental housing.

While I disagree with the conservative finger-pointing, the contentions should serve as a wake-up call for us all. We should be embarrassed that a state, where Democrats hold every statewide office and legislative super-majorities, has the highest poverty rate in the country. By allowing the poverty crisis to spiral out of control, California’s Democratic leaders have created an opening for conservatives to argue that fighting poverty doesn’t work — when in reality, we have not done enough to help working families.

That’s why I lobbied California to launch its first state Earned Income Tax Credit, which makes work pay better. It is a cash-back tax credit that puts money in the pockets of working families and individuals.

Here’s how it works: If you work and you make $22,300 (the equivalent of full-time minimum wage) or less, you get money back from the government based on how much you earned, and your family size. It is the single most effective antipoverty program, but one that is little known.

Over the past two years, our statewide organizing campaign has served nearly 1 million low-income Californians and helped them claim more than $2 billion of state and federal tax credits — money they use to pay for rent, transportation, clothing and food.

The EITC is working, but creating a California where work pays enough to cover people’s basic needs will require more of it. Ending the poverty crisis requires a minimum wage that is a living wage — $25 per hour.

It’s time to live up to our progressive rhetoric and be champions for the millions of Californians who work hard yet live in poverty. The good news is we can end this poverty crisis, if we make different choices.

Joe Sanberg is the founder of CalEITC4Me (http://caleitc4me.org).

 

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