Alameda County in California straddles the San Francisco Bay area and stretches from Silicon Valley north to Oakland and Berkeley. A major branch of the San Andreas Fault lies beneath the most densely populated part of the county. That’s where Betty lives. She was hard at work full time in the health care field, with her own catering and massage therapy business on the side, raising four children as a single mother when a series of health crises created an earthquake that shattered her life. After three surgeries on her spine she could not work, struggled and slid into homelessness with her two youngest children. Living in shelters and transitional housing, it took three years before they could find affordable housing through a federal housing assistance program.
Fortunately the federal safety net has been there to catch Betty and her now 8-year-old and 13-year-old children. Medicaid and SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have also been lifelines in their lives. Last year, Betty was finally able to go back to work part time and received a nearly $4,000 refund from the federal and state Earned Income Tax Credits combined (EITC), with the help of free tax assistance from United Way Bay Area. To her, it was a huge support after hard times. For the first time in three years she says, “We did stuff that was normal, and I was able to put money in the bank, buy a phone and pay off my bills.” She felt again the dignity and self-respect she’d felt when working full time and supporting her family without government assistance.
She’s ready to go back full time to her career in the health care field just as another giant earthquake is looming that could be catastrophic, not only for Betty and her children, but also for the millions of children in America in families struggling to stay afloat. The draconian Trump budget is an all-out war against poor children and their families. First it attacks both Betty and her children’s health care by slashing $1.4 trillion out of Medicaid just to give Betty’s rich neighbors, the millionaires and billionaires in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, huge tax breaks they don’t need or deserve. Betty could lose her monthly health visits that control her chronic condition and with it her ability to work. Her children, already buffeted by bad times, might lose their health care and dental care, too. They could lose the roof over their heads with cuts in federal housing assistance programs at a time when the median home value in Alameda County is $773,000. And if the president’s proposal to slash SNAP is enacted, these cascading assaults mean the family could once again face hunger and homelessness without health care.
States like California, where more than one in eight of our nation’s poor children and nearly one in six poor children of color reside, have the opportunity and responsibility to reweave some of the holes that already exist in our federal safety net in the face of these looming immoral budget assaults on their most vulnerable children. Some already have been at work and are continuing their efforts. In 2015, we applauded California leaders when they created a new state Earned Income Tax Credit that builds on the federal EITC to provide an income boost to some low-income working families. That gave Betty’s children hope for a better future.
California policy leaders are now crafting a state budget that has a chance to expand the state EITC so more working poor families like Betty’s can benefit and to offer new help for parents and their young children benefiting from CalWORKs, the state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. And final decisions are close at hand. The state Assembly has adopted a proposal to expand the state EITC to reach working families earning up to $22,000 per year, including self-employed workers who are currently excluded from the credit. Research shows the EITC has long-lasting benefits for children, families and communities. It is one of the most effective programs to lift families out of poverty. Children receiving the EITC have higher test scores and are more likely to graduate high school and attend college. The benefits of the EITC extend to the next generation by increasing earnings when children reach adulthood. The Assembly also approved a new voluntary early home visiting program to improve outcomes for some of California’s most vulnerable children and families — pregnant women and parents of children age 2 and under in CalWORKs. Quality home visiting programs have documented benefits for both children and parents, too.
California leaders have had strong rhetoric about their commitment to protect vulnerable children and families in light of federal threats. There is now a test for California’s governor and legislative leaders. Expanding the California EITC and creating a new early home visiting program to support vulnerable families would help the state make progress toward ending child poverty.
We’ll hopefully be able to report back on gains for children and families in California and want to hear of important gains in other states, too. But we must not lose sight of the fact that states alone cannot make up for what must also be a federal commitment to let no child in our country be denied health care, go hungry, be left without a safe place to live or have their special needs unmet. There must be continued pressure at the federal level to prevent the shredding of core safety net programs that for millions of children can mean life or death or hope or despair.
We must be vigilant and make sure our political leaders on all sides of the political aisle hear us loud and clear as major policy and budget decisions are made at the state and national levels which will have a huge impact on millions of our children who are America’s future. Although President Trump’s budget would not pass the test of any great faith or standard of fairness and may be dead on arrival, we must resist. Many of its proposals will likely resurface in the House of Representatives and so we must stay vigilant and ensure they are resoundingly rejected.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.