This month, almost 50,000 Sonoma County households will receive the first of six monthly $300 federal child support checks. Democrats and all Republicans in both the Senate and House of Representatives approved these stimulus checks unanimously. Last week, similar unanimous votes were taken in both chambers of the California legislature, approving the dispersal of one-time $600 stimulus checks to most households. The city council of Santa Rosa is considering a form of a guaranteed income to eligible households and many other local and state governments are considering similar guaranteed income programs. All this would be a radical departure from past decades of government economic policy.
Are we looking at a historical moment akin to Roosevelt’s New Deal or Johnson’s Great Society? President Joe Biden says he wants “to go big.” He wants to follow up his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan with trillions more of federal spending on childcare, expanded kindergarten, free community college tuition, Medicare expansion and other social services and anti-poverty programs.
These are historical times in America for related reasons, but whether we will see a new war on poverty mobilization represents huge political strides yet to be taken and most often blunted over past decades.
Sonoma County is one of the most affluent, progressive and inclusive places to live in America. Yet the poverty rate here is over 10%, placing 50,768 county residents below the federal poverty line. The average monthly wages for a renting household is $2,920 where the average rent bill is $2,020. That leaves $840 for food, child care, transportation, medical care, insurance and other essential needs. Sonoma County has 2,785 homeless people but another 21,725 “vulnerable” people.
It has now been seven years since the landmark publication of “A Portrait of Sonoma County.” The report presented hard facts and statistics on our inequalities of life expectancy, income levels, education opportunities and neighborhood safety based more on the zip code we live in versus one’s aptitude or hard work. Since 2014, Sonoma County’s portrait has only grown bleaker.
All the current momentum by government leaders and others to address this widening gulf of income disparity and unmet needs of children and their families is encouraging. But we should be mindful of our recent past of unkempt promises and stunted political will.
It has been almost 60 years since President Johnson declared war on poverty and persuaded Congress to launch the many jobs, housing, health and education programs of the Great Society. Johnson’s Great Society programs dropped Sonoma County’s poverty rate from 17.9% to 11%. Our poverty rate has not budged since. That is 56 years of denial, avoidance, indifference and shame.
The Great Society brought many valuable programs to Sonoma County that still exist today. There are 13 Head Start centers in the county, the low-income preschool program started in 1964. West County Community Services was started in the same era as the River Switchboard and was staffed by federal Community Action Program funds. Likewise, similar funds helped expand Circuit Riders Productions, a skills training and environmental restoration program that was renamed The Center for Social and Environmental Services before reclaiming its original name a few years ago. Alliance Clinic and the other federally-qualified community health care centers in the county were original Great Society programs that all served income-eligible patients that were added to the rolls of the new Medicare and Medicaid programs.
Food stamps, the Conservation Corps, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and Upward Bound were created to support job creation, skills training and broader educational opportunities. The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities were created as independent, nonprofit cultural programs with promised federal funding. Even television got a boost with the formation of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which is still going strong today. (Check out our own KRCB TV 22.)
We should “go big” like this again, as in “right now.”