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How Local, State Policies Worsen Poverty Across California



State and local government practices often exacerbate the tribulations of being poor in California, says Dan Walters. (Shutterstock)
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Life is tough for poor people in California — particularly the working poor who are trying to pay their way, but must deal with the state’s very high costs for necessities such as rent, gasoline and utilities.

In fact, those high living costs are the chief factors in the Census Bureau’s calculation that California has the nation’s highest poverty rate. The poor and the near-poor, as determined by the Public Policy Institute of California, are well over a third of the state’s nearly 40 million residents.

Poor Mistreated by Those Claiming to Sympathize

California’s politicians talk a lot about the poverty conundrum and are forever advancing proposals to put a little more money in the pockets of poor families. However, at the same time, state and local government practices often exacerbate the tribulations of being poor in California.

Dan Walters



Restrictive land zoning processes, arbitrary building standards and crushing fees, for instance, make it nearly impossible to build cost-effective housing for low- and moderate-income families and the shortage of such housing drives up rents.

Overly complicated state and local regulations on business and professions throw up roadblocks that make it difficult for enterprising poor Californians to lift themselves up.

California’s public schools are notoriously lax in educating children from disadvantaged backgrounds. When the state gave schools billions of extra dollars to close what’s called the “achievement gap,” local officials diverted much of the money into other purposes. Months of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic widened the gap even more.

Two recent news items frame how California’s poor are mistreated by policies enacted by officials who profess to sympathize with their plight.

‘Civil Assessments’ Tacked on to Fines

A coalition called Debt Free Justice California issued a report on how very hefty “civil assessments” tacked onto minor offenses, including traffic offenses, create a vicious circle for those who can’t afford them. When the assessments go unpaid, additional fines and fees ensue, sometimes resulting in the suspension of driver’s licenses that then make people unable to legally travel to and from work.

Very often, the civil assessments have been tacked onto fines simply to raise money for programs and projects without raising taxes that might generate political backlash. Eight years ago, then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have increased some traffic fines, calling it “a regressive increase that affects poor people disproportionately.”

A year, Brown, terming the state’s traffic court system a “hellhole of desperation” for the poor that had resulted in millions of driver’s license suspensions, called for an amnesty.

The second news item came out of Oakland, whose left-of-center politicians constantly profess concern about the poor.

‘Never Ending’ Regulations

A local social action group called Poor Magazine scraped and scrimped to build a four-unit housing project where the very poor could live rent-free, but it has sat vacant for a year while the city pestered the organization with demands for minor changes.

“It’s taken months and tens of thousands of dollars to address the city’s seemingly never-ending list of requirements, from adding three parking spaces Poor Magazine says residents likely won’t use, to painting the vents on the roof,” the Bay Area News Group reported. “In addition, the nonprofit now is on the hook for another $40,000 in fees.”

Fees and arcane requirements are an impediment to much-needed housing construction throughout the state but this is an especially egregious example of arbitrary action by city officials that will prevent some desperately poor people from having roofs over their head.

“First, do no harm” is an age-old credo about medical treatment. If California politicians want to help the poor, they first should stop harming them.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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