With Democratic control of the governorship and legislature and experienced, savvy lawyers challenging the Trump administration, it appears that California is poised to cement its role as the nation’s political outlier. After the election, the president of its state senate and the speaker of its assembly issued a joint statement, declaring that Trump’s presidency would not reverse California’s commitment to “global responsibility.”
A top Republican in Sacramento, on the other hand, has surveyed his own backyard and come to different conclusions. Growing up in Yucca Valley, which he new represents — an inland area of Southern California — Chad Mayes noticed the striking contrast between the desert town, with its obvious signs of poverty, and Silicon Valley, the state’s economic engine and a bastion of prosperity. Could such awareness spark a GOP resurgence in California?
Mayes, the Republican leader in the California assembly, has taken ownership of an issue that has been in the domain of the Democratic party and largely on bureaucratic autopilot for over 50 years: the war on poverty. That would be the war that President Lyndon Johnson started and that the country, especially California, never finished. According to the Census Bureau, California’s poverty rate is 20.6 percent, the highest in the nation.
Its reputation for being a political trendsetter is legendary, but fighting poverty has not been its strong suit. The Golden State is known for wide-ranging environmental regulations, for some of the nation’s toughest consumer-protection laws, and for being the first state to legalize medical marijuana. More recently, California enacted a $15 minimum wage, and the legislature is poised to make it a sanctuary state for illegal immigrants.
In his State of the State address in January, Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed that California was “the great exception.” To help ensure that its liberal exceptionalism continued, the legislature hired former attorney general Eric Holder to sue the Trump administration, and Xavier Becerra, the state attorney general and a former congressman, “gets to battle Trump,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. What could go wrong with this plan to institutionalize partisan politics?
Mayes has a plan of his own. It encompasses tax relief, child care, workforce training, and education and housing initiatives. Fully implementing the plan will be a heavy lift and subject to partisan sniping, but it features some practical solutions that could lead to some public-policy and political victories.
Consider CalWORKs, California’s version of the federal program Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, gives cash aid to low-income families. Almost half of the recipients do not graduate from high school, making the odds of their escaping poverty practically nil. Under Mayes’s plan, monthly payments would rise from $100 to $300 for those who graduate from high school, obtain a high-school-equivalency diploma, or earn an associate or bachelor’s degrees.
Boosting funding for job-training initiatives through several legislative measures, including tax relief to address California’s high cost of living, Mayes is advancing Jack Kemp’s empowerment agenda, which put the issues of poverty and homelessness in the national spotlight in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The last significant change to welfare at the federal level occurred over 20 years ago under President Bill Clinton. That was for just one program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
Today, the federal government administers 80 means-tested, uncoordinated programs covering every human need imaginable, ranging from home-heating assistance to food stamps and public housing. Adding to the complexity, the programs are often managed by state and local governments, making it difficult to determine who is accountable for success or failure.
Then there is homelessness. Almost 30 percent of the nation’s unaccompanied homeless youth live in California, according to a federal report. That’s more than 10,000 individuals. Under the Mayes plan, the state would award grants to local non-profits and stipulate performance requirements. This funding would go to transitional housing, which, when correctly implemented, would help residents and social workers identify issues, such as drug abuse and lack of job skills, that cause homelessness in the first place. Under the Obama administration, on the other hand, the Department of Housing and Urban Development favored a centrally planned model, essentially warehousing people and waiving requirements for sobriety or finding work.
Fixing this is a tall order. Mayes wants to work in a bipartisan manner. For a Republican in California, that is a must. The key to success is the ability to demonstrate results in the creation of opportunities for more Americans to join the middle class. If the Republican assembly leader can accomplish that, score another first for California in the realm of public-policy initiatives in the war on poverty. Chad Mayes is challenging liberal orthodoxy and restoring political balance in a state whose leaders — or most of them — have lost sight of why they are in office.
— Vann Ellison is the president and CEO of St. Matthew’s House, which provides innovative solutions to poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse in Naples, Fla., and nearby communities.