“California Comeback!” is the favorite slogan of Sacramento politicians cheering a temporary budget surplus provided by a roaring stock market. But California also has the highest poverty rate in America at 24%. Is California back? I wanted to see firsthand what that comeback looks like for many Californians.
So, last Monday morning I took a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to Fresno. With only forty dollars in my pocket (and no credit cards), a backpack, a change of clothes, and a toothbrush, I planned to find a job and earn enough money to get by. I am an able-bodied 40-year old. Surely I could find some work?
Over the next seven days, I walked mile after mile in one hundred degree heat searching for a job. I offered to do anything: wash dishes, sweep floors, pack boxes, cook meals, anything. I went to dozens of businesses in search of work but wasn’t able to get any. In seven days, I didn’t see a single “help wanted” sign but I did see plenty of signs that fast food outlets now accept food stamps.
I was committed to finding a job. It was my top priority, but halfway through the week my priority was forced to change: I barely had any money left and needed to find food. Fortunately, kind-hearted homeless residents in Fresno pointed me to a shelter, Poverello House, which provides services to the homeless. I had no choice but to join the hundreds of men, women and families who go to the shelter for food.
The meals at Poverello House were a Godsend. But they introduced a new challenge: I now needed to stay within a short walk of the shelter so I could be back in time for my next meal. I only had enough money left to take the city bus once, so my job search area just shrunk. The odds of me finding a job were getting smaller by the day.
Since I had little money, a motel was out of the question. I tried to sleep on park benches or parking lots. Anywhere I wouldn’t be chased out. Night after night, however, I was woken up and told to move along by security guards or the police.
The people I met during my week in Fresno are proud. They don’t want to be homeless. They don’t want to be poor. They don’t want to depend on a shelter or the state. Most want jobs, but just cannot find one.
But this poor job market doesn’t just affect people seeking minimum wage jobs; it also affects people up the education ladder. As is so common these days, an educated, professionally trained photographer told me when the economy faltered, his photography work dried up. Now he is grateful to have a job serving coffee. Unfortunately, his story is playing out in too many cities across California.
The Fresno Community Food Bank is doing record business these days, serving food to over 220,000 residents each month, up over 300% from a few years ago. Fresno is in the heart of California’s agriculture economy.
With a third year of record drought, farmers don’t have enough water for their crops. About 500,000 acres of land have been fallowed. One young woman in line at the food bank said it simply: “There’s not enough water. Crops can’t be grown. My family works in the fields and they can’t get work every day…sometimes just on weekends.”
I walked for hours and hours in search of a job, giving me a lot of time to think. Five days into my search, hungry, tired, and hot, I asked myself: What would solve my problems? Food stamps? Welfare? An increased minimum wage?
No. I needed a job. Period. Like others, I have often said the best social program in the world is a good job. Even though it was only a week, with a defined end-point, that expression became much more real for me. A job was the one thing that could have solved my food, housing and transportation problems.
California’s record poverty is man-made: over-regulation and over-taxation that drive jobs out of state, failing schools and misguided water policies, to name a few. We have the power to tackle poverty if we implement smart, pro-growth economic policies as many other states have done.
While the politicians who run California pat themselves on the back and claim a “California Comeback,” they willfully ignore millions of our neighbors who are living in poverty. California’s most vulnerable deserve leaders who will fight for them. And it’s a fight that Republicans should lead. We have the policy ideas to rebuild the middle class and give every Californian, and every American, real economic opportunity.
A video documenting my week of homelessness can be found at www.neelkashkari.com/poverty/
Neel Kashkari is the republican nominee for Governor of California.