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Golis: When income disparity becomes everyone’s business

There was a time when folks would have marched on city hall if local government gave money to families with less.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

There was a time when folks would have marched on city hall if local government gave money to families with less. The critics’ howls would have echoed through the streets.

But times change. In Sonoma County, a survey showed more than half of all the families with children under 6 years old struggles to absorb the costs of rent, food, utilities and their kids’ shoes.

Pete Golis
Pete Golis

Even the critics know it’s true. For many of the folks who get up every day and go to work, Sonoma County has become a damned expensive place to live.

Globalization and new technology have changed our world. Toss in a worldwide pandemic and inflation, and you begin to understand why so many people are scrambling.

From gas to groceries, scarcities are driving up the cost of almost everything. Rents in Sonoma County increased 12.9% last year alone. How many people received a 12.9% pay raise in 2021?

At the Redwood Empire Food Bank, demand is soaring because people don’t have enough money left over to put food on the table. Food is growing more expensive, too — for consumers and food banks alike. In this year alone, folks at the food bank estimate they will distribute food worth more than $59 million.

In a county with low levels of unemployment, we know many of the people receiving help from the food bank are still holding down one or more jobs. They just can’t keep up with what it costs to live here.

“It is really expensive to be poor,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers told Staff Writer Paulina Pineda.

The city of Santa Rosa is among the agencies joining in a two-year, $5.4 million pilot program that will pay $500 a month to 305 low-income families with children under 6. Other partners include Sonoma County, the cities of Petaluma and Healdsburg, plus a coalition of community groups. (For more information and an application, check out pathwaysonoma.org/apply. The deadline is midnight, Oct. 31.)

The immediate goal is to generate better results — healthier, happier families and more successful kids. The next generation’s success will determine the kind of community we will become.

“What we know,” said Rogers, “is that when parents don’t have to choose between putting food on the table for their kids or buying them sneakers or school supplies, generally we see better outcomes.”

Income disparity has other consequences, too. There’s a reason that businesses scramble to hire the people they need to be successful. Some are closing because they can’t hire the people who do the work.

If you wonder why you see help wanted signs everywhere you go, it’s because people are leaving for places where they can afford to live. Or they’re not moving here in the first place, having experienced the sticker shock that comes with buying or renting a home.

A county that depends on the agriculture and hospitality industries can’t afford to look the other way while this is happening. Your favorite restaurant or shop may be affected. So, too, will be the organizations that provide your health care.

Some say such programs take away the incentives for people to work (though the results from other support programs suggest otherwise). Others say help for low-income people should come via reforms in the earned income and child tax credits, or by raising the minimum wage.

At least 48 guaranteed income programs are now in place, the New York Times reported. Pilot projects are underway in San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Denver, among other places.

Using oil revenues, Alaska has maintained a guaranteed income program for more than 40 years. Every man, woman and child benefits.

Now, local leaders get the opportunity to test the proposition here, using money from the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal program aimed at mitigating the economic losses associated with the pandemic.

Said Rogers: “This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to take a giant swing at poverty and in particular children who are living in poverty to try to break the generational poverty cycle.”

Supporters and detractors alike wait to see whether the results of this pilot program will prove anything, but no one should be operating under the illusion that the status quo will suffice.

“The test of our progress,” said President Franklin Roosevelt, “is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Globalization and runaway housing costs have changed the economic landscape. Pretending it’s still 1990 won’t bring back the world we used to know.

Besides, not many would argue kids should go hungry because Mom and Dad need to pay the rent.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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