Food bank workers in California

Los Angeles County Regional Food Bank workers help with food distribution to some 2,000 vehicles expected to arrive in Willowbrook, California on April 29, 2021 in an ongoing effort to help people affected by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Ending Poverty in California Is Possible

The American Dream should not mean that we stack the odds immeasurably against certain people, and if they work hard and are lucky enough to survive, a few of them will make it. There's a better dream.

In 2019, when I implemented the first major Guaranteed Income pilot in any American city as Mayor of Stockton, people thought it was "crazy." Yet today, more than 60 mayors across the country have now committed to guaranteed income as a tool to abolish poverty, with about half already running pilots in their own cities.

So this month when I launched End Poverty in California (EPIC) to do exactly what the name says, and to also ensure that everyone in the Golden State has equal opportunity no matter their zip code--I didn't really care if people thought the notion of poverty elimination is far-fetched. Because it's not.

I am driven by my own personal experiences growing up in poverty. I've never forgotten where I've come from, or lost sight of the brilliance that existed throughout my often-overlooked community in Stockton. As a nation we will never reach our potential until we start seeing, investing in, and valuing everyone. The simple fact is that talent and intellect are universal. Opportunities and resources are not. We aim to change that.

For too long, people in poverty have been ignored and shamed, written off as unworthy of even being listened to. That is in no small part due to racist, sexist, and classist stereotypes that allow elected leaders to maintain or even fortify unjust systems. I abhor everything about poverty and the way we treat people who are trapped in a system that sets them up for failure--separate and unequal schools, lack of health care infrastructure, no good jobs, prohibitively expensive higher education, over-policing--the list goes on. I call it "The Setup." And yet people still have the arrogance to ask, "Why can't you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps like so and so did?"

It is both unsurprising and astounding that poor communities are, at best, ignored when solutions to poverty are being discussed, and at worst, demonized. You would never see governments try to create policy to help small businesses without talking to entrepreneurs. Or education policy without talking to educators. But when it comes to antipoverty and pro-opportunity policy, the people with the highest stakes--for whom policy choices are too often a life or death matter--are largely shut out of the conversation.

That's why at the heart of EPIC's work is sitting down with communities across the state and listening, which we have already started to do and these listening sessions will continue throughout 2022. What are people's struggles? What do they want and need? What are the strengths and ideas in their communities that are overlooked by outsiders? What do they want their elected officials to know? These visits are intended to help build a policy agenda, as well as a constituency that is ready to mobilize to end poverty and create equal opportunity for everyone in California. Moreover, if we can do it in California, we can use this model across the country--just as Stockton's Guaranteed Income pilot has served as a model for other cities.

We have already visited communities in Fresno and South Los Angeles. Over the course of these conversations, some common themes emerged.

Both Fresno and South Los Angeles residents see communities where neighbors look out for each other, with people sacrificing a lot of time and money to help one another get by despite facing so many challenges themselves. They see resourcefulness and ingenuity in people's ability to survive with so little. They see mentors and organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs, senior centers, places of worship, and other community-based entities that are under-resourced and doing heroic and often grueling work to help people survive, get ahead, or engage politically.

Many people in both cities think the public and elected leaders don't understand the trauma of living in poverty--whether due to violence, or food scarcity, or separated families, constant shaming and stigmatizing, or endless other factors that create toxic stress. Or what it's like to work hard your whole life and never get that promised payoff. The struggle of trying to change your family's trajectory, only to be thwarted by systems outside of your control. The anxiety of living one missed paycheck away from homelessness; or working two, three jobs and still not having it add up to a living wage.

And, of course, people want to see the same kinds of things that wealthier communities take for granted. Good jobs, and public transportation. Well-resourced schools that offer enrichment programs, career tracks, and guidance counselors. Health care, including mental health services. Police that are connected to the community instead of outsiders over-policing and intimidating the residents. Access to capital for small businesses, homeownership, education and training, and the opportunity to accumulate generational wealth. Housing that is high quality and affordable.

Moreover, in our state that is 39% Latino--with a Latino majority for children under age 18--people want to see real immigration reform so that families and individuals who have long contributed to their communities can come out of the shadows and fully participate in society. In Fresno, people reported fear of getting vaccinated due to their immigration status, or even being reluctant to call on emergency services when needed. The fact is there is no poverty solution without thinking about ways to include undocumented individuals.

People also said they want their elected leaders to come and visit, and, crucially, to listen. And so I extend an open invitation to any California government official who wants to join us as we continue our listening sessions (or elected officials from other states who want to learn with us). More broadly, whether you are an elected official or just someone who wants to get involved in the work to eliminate poverty--you don't have to be an immigrant, or homeless, or living paycheck-to-paycheck, to understand what it's like to feel othered, discounted, or treated like you're a nuisance. You have empathy, so use it. You know that everyone is deserving of their innate dignity, so treat people that way--in word, in deed, in policy design.

Above all else--listen. You will learn that the system sets people up to fail, and that we are called to "Upset the Setup" so our nation lives up to its greatest ideals. The American Dream should not mean that we stack the odds immeasurably against certain people, and if they work hard and are lucky enough to survive, a few of them will make it. The Dream is equal opportunity for all, and if you work hard, you will rise. And if you can't work, we will be there for you.

If we commit to ending poverty, we will make the Dream real.

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