One welfare boost for the poor, another for the rich

When we think of “welfare,” we assume it means supportive income for poor families, particularly those with children.

That certainly is its meaning in Senate Bill 982, which won unanimous, bipartisan approval in the state Senate late last month.

Carried by Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, SB 982 would reverse many years of stagnation, and even cuts, in family support grants under California’s version of welfare, dubbed CalWORKs.

Nearly 900,000 Californians, mostly children, draw support from the program, a small portion of the 8 million Californians considered to be poor. Grants for a family of three average $556 per month, less than the $594 average two decades ago, because during the state’s periodic budget crises, governors and legislators froze or even reduced grants to save money.

It’s evident from the numbers that even including Medi-Cal, food stamps and other benefits, nobody on welfare is getting rich, or even getting by – especially with the state’s exploding costs of housing.

“I’m not sure how those mothers and fathers get through every month,” Mitchell said in brief floor debate before the 39-0 vote to send her bill to the Assembly.

SB 982 would incrementally, over three years, increase “maximum family grants,” which are based both on poverty and the size of families, from the current 33 percent of the federally determined poverty level to 50 percent, and adjust them thereafter as costs of living increase.

“Without a substantial increase, grant levels will have remained below the deep poverty line for 11 years in a row,” Mitchell said after her bill passed. “To me, this is entirely unacceptable.”

So, that’s how the Senate responded on welfare of the traditional kind.

But just before taking up SB 982, the Senate passed a welfare bill of another kind, also carried by Mitchell.

Senate Bill 951, approved by a 37-2 vote, would continue and expand the state’s tax credit subsidies to film production, up to $330 million a year.

Mitchell and other senatorial advocates pictured it as supporting a vital economic activity – “California’s premier industry” in her words – that is being threatened by runaway production to other states and nations because of their incentives.

While California’s liberal Democratic politicians often decry corporate tax loopholes, they are making a very pointed exception for this one industry, whose corporate and union leaders are dependable supporters of Democratic candidates and causes.

In fact, the film industry, despite its very high cultural profile, is an almost infinitesimal factor in the state’s $2.6 trillion economy, and not even very important in Southern California.

It is no more deserving of state subsidies than other sectors that experience changes of economic circumstance –such as the defense industry, which melted down after the Cold War ended, the agricultural industry or even the newspaper business, which has shed thousands of journalists and other employees in recent years as ad revenue declined.

In reviewing an earlier version of the movie industry tax credit, the Legislature’s own budget analyst, Mac Taylor, said that its net benefits were difficult to find, and added, “As we have stated previously, the competition between states to provide public subsidies to specific individuals or companies is very problematic as a public policy. In general, we advise policy makers to reject such tax incentives.”

Helping uber-poor families cope with California’s very high cost of living is one thing. Bribing Hollywood producers with taxpayer money to remain in the state is quite another.

That’s just welfare for the wealthy.

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