March 10th, 2023

Editor’s Note: This week, EPIC President Devon Gray testified before the California State Assembly’s Budget Committee on how we can reform our benefits systems, particularly CalWORKS. Devon focused on how false narratives and stereotypes about people in poverty have resulted in policy design that makes it exceedingly difficult for people to get the assistance they need and deserve. He says we can end poverty, in part by speaking directly with people living in poverty and valuing their expertise about the policies that impact their lives.

You can read the transcript here or watch Devon’s full testimony below!

Thank you and good afternoon, Chairman Arambula and members of this subcommittee. My name is Devon Gray, I’m the president of End Poverty in California (EPIC). We’re an organization that was founded about a year ago by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and we’re really excited to be joined by so many wonderful advocates and policymakers who I think all understand the urgency of this moment. And, as Assemblymember Jackson was referring to, this recognition that we are increasingly a state of contradictions and not one that has prioritized an ideal of shared prosperity. 

And we know some of the statistics: That California has the fourth largest economy in the world, and yet we have the highest poverty rate of any state when you take into account cost of living. We know that we have more billionaires than any country in the world, aside from the United States and China. And yet 4.5 million Californians live below the poverty line. This is a consequence of policy choices that we’ve made in both our distant and recent past that have led to this concentration of wealth, rather than moving towards a state with shared prosperity. And these choices have trickled down towards our safety net systems as well. We’ve created barriers to access for programs like CalWORKs, where we see an uptick rate that’s around 60%. And though it’s fluctuated over recent decades, we still know that means there are hundreds of thousands of families in the state that are not availing themselves of the resources that are vitally needed for them to get themselves out of poverty. 

So why have we created so many barriers to access? 

EPIC’s theory is that the reason is that we have been internalizing as a society narratives and harmful stereotypes over the last decades, if not centuries, that further this notion that poverty is fundamentally an individual failing, that people live in poverty because they choose to be, because they’re lazy, because they can’t be trusted, or any number of other stereotypes that are very harmful and often quite racially coded. So what this leads to is benefits programs that are structured accordingly. They operate from a presumption of fraud or unworthiness that applicants themselves are tasked with disproving. And we see this through onerous recertification requirements. We see it through short durations of eligibility where applicants and beneficiaries constantly have to reprove their deservedness. And we see it through rigid work requirements that prioritize notions that are outdated and exist more from the 1990s welfare reform era, instead of having one that’s more flexible and actually prioritizes delivery of benefits. And the effect here is that it makes benefits harder to access. It ultimately discourages uptake, and fundamentally it breeds a distrust in government. 

So what types of reforms should we embrace? I think fundamentally we need to abandon, again, this presumption of fraud that shapes so many of our systems and instead prioritize the delivery of benefits over the gatekeeping of benefits. The status quo again places this burden on applicants to navigate an admittedly very complex system and time and time again prove their deservedness. We can also start by eliminating the onerous recertification and renewal rules and processes so that CalWORKs recipients don’t have to meet these duplicative reporting requirements on varying timelines. The current system imposes what we call a “time tax” on applicants where it takes hours, if not days, to retrieve all the necessary information, just to prove again that you are worthy of receiving help from the state. And that takes time away from your family. It takes time away from your job, it takes time away from advancing through higher education and again, ultimately discourages uptake and breeds that distrust with government that we don’t want to see. 

We can also lengthen the duration of eligibility for benefits and waive rules that enable what we call “benefits cliffs.” Under the current regime, sudden changes in income can abruptly kick someone off of their programs before they’ve had a chance to establish real financial security. So we want to make sure that we’re providing more flexibility there. And we can also increase the amount of income support so that all recipients are actually able to receive enough cash assistance to meet basic needs. And last, we can revise work requirements to allow for greater flexibility and access.

I think we have to constantly remind ourselves that our goal for the safety net should be fundamentally ending poverty and child poverty in particular, And programs like CalWORKS, if done correctly, can help provide a basic income for all Californians. I think as a state, we can’t guarantee that everyone’s going to be prosperous, but we can at least try to ensure that everyone has enough to meet basic needs to get by. 

I think ending poverty is possible, but I think we have to embrace a few ideals in order to get there. First, we have to abandon these old narratives in favor of one that’s more accurate and authentic and understands that poverty is caused less by individual choices, but more by systemic and policy choices that set people up to fail. Second, we have to center lived experience–and recognize those living in poverty as subject matter experts on the policies that we’re discussing today. I think as advocates and legislators, we have no issue talking to farmers about agricultural policy, or entrepreneurs about small business policy. But despite doing it today, we don’t always consult people living in poverty on how benefits programs are going to affect their lives. So we need to value lived experience as expertise as much as anyone from a think tank or academia. 

And last, I think we need to fundamentally believe that ending poverty is possible. I think in California we have all the wealth, we have all the talent, we have the political capital, which again, is oftentimes the hardest thing to accrue. But we have to recognize that the choices that we make today have the impact to end poverty tomorrow, and that we can’t be bound by the policy choices of yesterday that led us into this predicament in the first place. So with that, I appreciate you all for making this platform for all of us to share our priorities. Thank you all.