SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown, once perceived as a paragon of California liberalism, finds himself accused of disregarding California’s impoverished at a time when President Obama is warning of the expanding inequality between rich and poor in America.
The criticism is rooted in the governor’s devotion to austerity. His detractors say his tightfistedness hampers the state’s ability to address basic, life-sustaining needs of the 9 million Californians living in poverty — more than in any other state, according to census figures.
Obama used his State of the Union address last week to push for extended benefits for the jobless and a boost in the federal minimum wage. In contrast, Brown used his State of the State address last month to preach frugality, urging California lawmakers to save money against future downturns rather than spend the new budget surplus.
He made just a passing mention of “struggling families.” And though the proposed budget he had unveiled a week earlier contained a 5% welfare hike and other increases for the needy, his critics note that those are modest and were agreed on last year, before a multibillion-dollar surplus emerged.
Brown is being penny-wise and pound foolish, say advocates for those in deepest poverty — typically defined as a family of four with an annual income of $16,000 or less.
“If we don’t invest in early childhood education and healthcare and the safety net now,” said state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), “it will cost us more later.”
Brown bristles at the suggestion that he has ignored those in need. California is more generous than most states, he says, and Washington, D.C., including the Obama administration, is struggling to catch up.
“We can always do more, but I really think California, relative to the rest of the country, is doing a very credible job in responding to the needs of our people,’' Brown told reporters recently.
Last year, Brown signed a measure to make California’s minimum wage the highest in the nation — $10 an hour — by 2016. He shifted education funds so more go to districts serving children from low-income and immigrant families.
In addition to the 5% welfare increase, he agreed to expand health coverage for the poor and restore dental coverage for impoverished adults, which was cut during years of budget crises.
In 2012, Brown cited the growing gap between rich and poor to persuade voters to raise income taxes on the state’s highest earners. The new money helped avert deeper cuts to schools and welfare programs, which had already been curtailed substantially.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, a former Wall Street financier and federal official, has made education and poverty the cornerstones of his budding campaign. He said Brown’s State of the State speech showed the governor had “forgotten the millions of Californians who are struggling.”
But those people “don’t want welfare,” said Kashkari, who has yet to release specific policy proposals detailing what he would do differently. “They want good jobs.”
Ron Unz, a Republican who made a failed bid for governor in 1994 and championed a 1998 ballot initiative to end bilingual education, agrees. He has proposed an initiative to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour, saying it could save the state tens of millions of dollars a year in welfare payments.
“Government essentially subsidizes low-wage businesses,” Unz said.
Leaders of the Democratically controlled Legislature have been muted in their criticism of the popular governor’s spending plans.
Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has praised Brown’s fiscal restraint but also hinted that the Legislature would pursue its own priorities.
“There is also some room to make some smart investments,” Steinberg said, mentioning preschool for all 4-year-olds and more restoration of social services.
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) also wants to continue replenishing funds for welfare and food-stamp grants, as well as those cut from public health programs and student financial aid.
Other Democrats want more. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has proposed requiring California employers to provide three paid sick days for full-time employees.
The governor insists that California’s financial situation, although vastly improved, is still tenuous. He rejects calls from those who want to spend more even though more is available, instead supporting a proposed ballot measure that would require funds to be socked away in a rainy-day fund each year.
“Prudence is never easy,” he said when he rolled out his budget proposal. “When the money’s in, people want to go for it.”
Brown acknowledges that there’s a long-term need to do more. His budget proposal says more than 26% of the state’s population is foreign-born, and nearly half of all children in California have at least one foreign-born parent. Those immigrants and their children are more likely than other Californians to be poor.
The governor says his new education funding plan, along with the expansion of Medi-Cal under the federal healthcare law, will help those residents, but the state needs to strike a balance.
“That’s really the story, and will be the story of the coming year,” he said recently: “how we’re able to work with the legislators and the advocate groups to maintain our long-term path.”