Maria Shriver's shocking facts about low-income California

Surprising data on low-income Californians as the governor and Legislature mull new spending plan

Greg Lucas' state-politics column Capitol Lowdown appears every-other week in SN&R. He also blogs at

As Gov. Jerry “Sam the Eagle” Brown was presenting his $151 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, Maria Shriver published a report on low-income America.

There’s some shocking stuff in Shriver’s opus that Sacramento’s solons should use to weigh the soundness of their next 151 billion spending decisions. Briefly:

More than 100 million citizens of the richest country on the planet live in poverty or teeter on its brink. The brink ain’t too bitchin’, either. Shriver defines it as a family of four earning $47,000 a year.

Of those 100 million people, 42 million are women and 28 million are children who depend on them.

The American family is also a teensy bit different than the Ozzie and Harriet Uber Alles days of 1964, when LBJ declared war on poverty. In 2014, just one-fifth of families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. Two-thirds rely on the mother’s income.

Today, more than 40 percent of children in the United States are born to single or unmarried parents. Nearly three-quarters of those unmarried births are to poor women.

The 2012 census update shows a little more than one-third of California’s children live in single-parent households. Nearly 2.2 million California kids live in poverty—the highest number in the nation.

Women are a majority of the country’s workforce, a majority of its not-for-pay caregivers, a majority of college graduates, a majority of voters, but they’re also two-thirds of the nation’s minimum-wage earners and, on average, receive 77 percent of the amount a man is paid to do the same job.

The poor are people we know—usually single-parent families with a woman breadwinner who, as Shriver says in her report, are “one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck—away from the brink.”

On the plus side, California is working harder than a lot of other states to yank folks back from the brink and help haul up those down in the poverty hole.

The main problem with poor people is a lack of money. California is giving them more. Minimum-wage workers will get $9 an hour starting on July 1, and $10 an hour beginning on January 1, 2016. “[It] will help families that are struggling,” the governor said succinctly of the increase.

California has also offered employees paid parental leave for a decade now—the first state to do so. Last year, Brown expanded the list of family members and issues it can be used to cover.

Having this option is a big deal for lower-income workers, who without it face the Hobson’s choice of caring for a loved one or losing a paycheck and facing financial ruin. And the leave doesn’t cut into a business owner’s bottom line: It’s paid for out of the disability payments already deducted from employee paychecks.

One of the things the war on poverty fighters of a half-century ago were right about is the importance of strengthening families. That’s what Head Start and food stamps and, for all its deficiencies, Section 8 housing is about. Only a sieve-head could possibly believe that maintaining a job and caring for loved ones doesn’t build a stronger family.

Turning to the budget, the two biggest spending items are education—K-12 and higher—and Medi-Cal, the state’s health-care program for the poor. Just as it should be.

Education equals success. Shriver says one of the most important lessons girls can be taught today to improve their future is “college before kids.” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the other day he backs preschool for every 4-year-old. Go for it! Whatever the initial payout, the longer term payoff will make it seem like chump change.

Should California take a victory lap? Not so much. But if “Your Tax Dollars at Work” lapel pins were distributed to the members of working families whose lives are improving, the soundness of a big chunk of the state’s public investment would be much more obvious.