Democrats Want To Fight Poverty, but Don't Value Letting People Work

All the welfare programs California Democrats can dream up won't do as much as some commonsense reforms to let people who want to work, work.


Get ready to pop the cork on a bottle of champagne. As the American Prospect reported earlier this month, California—where a highest-in-the-nation one in five people is poor, according to the Census Bureau's cost-of-living-based standard—might be on the verge of doing "something that's never before happened in the United States: eliminate childhood deep poverty."

The Legislature simply needs to pass a variety of multibillion-dollar proposals—expanding Medi-Cal, funding universal preschool, investing "major sums" in affordable housing—that Gov. Gavin Newsom has included in his first budget. Obviously, my tongue is firmly planted in cheek—even if Democratic lawmakers and liberal magazine writers might not understand why many of us are guffawing.

California has the nation's most-generous social-welfare programs. It is the most progressive state in America politically and has been for years. There are few achievable left-of-center policies that haven't been tried here, yet poverty is more intractable than ever. Perhaps poverty is so high because of such policies, which always hike taxes, expand programs and regulate the heck out of the private sector.

State lawmakers are consumed by the idea of battling poverty. Local governments are fixated on the problem as well. One of California's poorest bigger cities, Stockton, is implementing a privately funded pilot program to give poor residents a Universal Basic Income—monthly cash that recipients can use with no strings attached—and has been enjoying favorable media attention as the program rolls out.

But one state labor official explained why the Stockton giveaway is a bad idea. His words offer a hint at why nothing the state tries ever reduces poverty. "This concept of universal basic income is a surrender to a kind of grim Dickensian view of the future, frankly, in which people are robbed of the dignity of work," said Barry Broad, who heads the California Employment Training Panel. The money phrase: "dignity of work."

For all their blather about the poor, California officials have refused to pick the low-hanging fruit—simple, easy to reach measures that would make it easier for low-income Californians to pursue dignified and lucrative careers. California imposes onerous occupational-licensing rules. If you want to do anything beyond, say, working in a fast-food job, you've got to get permission from the state.

The average cost of a license is $500, which isn't insurmountable. But paying Caesar is the easy part. The myriad training rules are the main problem. Last year, Sen. Mike Morrell (R–Rancho Cucamonga) introduced a bill (which my employer sponsored) to eliminate the 1,500 hours in schooling required to shampoo and curl people's hair for pay. It costs thousands of dollars to get a barbering and cosmetology degree.

That modest bill died in the Assembly. The committee punted the issue to the so-called Sunset Review. While that panel annually reviews many state regulations, it rarely sunsets anything. The ugly truth is the preponderance of licensing rules and training requirements have nothing to do with promoting the public's safety—and everything to do with protecting existing industries from competition.

Lawmakers don't like to take on existing interest groups and most are aghast at the idea of rolling back government regulations. That's why other bills to reduce or eliminate these burdensome rules have been non-starters. Yet what better way to reduce poverty than to make it easier for people to pursue useful trades? This dysfunctional system reminds me of the dystopian 1985 movie, "Brazil." The outlaw (Harry Tuttle, played by Robert De Niro) fixes heating and air-conditioning systems without a license. Says Tuttle: "Listen, this old system of yours could be on fire and I couldn't even turn on the kitchen tap without filling out a 27b/6. Bloody paperwork."

Meanwhile, conservative-leaning Arizona is reforming such laws. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey this month signed a measure that recognizes new residents' licenses from other states. "There's dignity in all work," the governor said. (There's that phrase again.) "And we know that whether you make your living as a plumber, a barber, a nurse or anything else, you don't lose your skills simply because you moved here." There's little chance California would approve such a reform.

California has tried to deal with the licensing issue, albeit in a perverse way. Attorney General Xavier Becerra last year sponsored Senate Bill 1272 to help law-enforcement arrest people who buy or sell services in the "underground economy." Fortunately, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it. The state also announced sting operations to catch laborers who have exceeded the measly $500 cap on providing unlicensed contracting. Instead of reforming its rules, California officials hope to fine and jail people.

Backers claimed that such work results in "significant uncollected revenues," in case you were unsure of the motivation. Those revenues are needed to fund anti-poverty programs, but perhaps someday lawmakers might realize that the best way to eliminate poverty is to make it easier for people to legally pursue dignified work.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.