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An in-depth analysis suggests that San Diego County is most at risk not from importing its poverty, but rather, by cultivating it — many of the low-income citizens and long-term residents here will continue to stay poor throughout their lives. Though certainly all of us as individuals are responsible for our own actions and the initiatives we take and fail to take in life, where the cycle of poverty affects our region most is with the younger generation. Bright, fully capable San Diegan children of all ethnic backgrounds are being left without the tools and equal opportunities necessary to lift themselves from poverty and seek a brighter future. Their parents do their best to provide them a solid foundation, but with little formal education and income themselves, the resources they can provide to achieve new economic heights are limited.

What is needed is a renewed focus on the economic integration of all corners of our community, so that regardless of their background, income or color, every child can become a full participating member of our dynamic economy. That’s not the reality today, and that has to change.

To fulfill this vision, some would suggest that San Diego may need to demand action by the state and federal governments to increase the welfare state, or enact regulatory reforms in areas such as housing and public education. But that would take years of costly taxpayer-funded lobbying and bruising political fights, all for unknown legislative outcomes.

I would argue that when it comes to poverty, more government is not the solution, but rather the problem. Dysfunctional bureaucracies, unreliable public transportation, high regressive taxes, high school “drop out factories” and commercial red tape all reduce the assets and opportunities the indigent need to lift themselves from poverty and provide for their families.

Rather than wait for the government to act tomorrow, we as a community must take decisive action today by building public-private partnerships with the numerous entrepreneurs, non-profit innovators and charitable contributors that call San Diego home and are ready and willing to help in the fight against poverty.

Moving forward, community members and civic leaders should consider three proven solutions to fostering true economic integration in the San Diego region:

1.) Cutting taxes for the working poor: California’s tax burden falls heavily upon working families, who pay a greater share of their incomes for sales, property, and excise taxes. As the California Budget Project noted in April 2007, our poorest families pay out the most in taxes, relative to their income.

One way to cut the tax burden for the poor locally is by supplementing the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable tax credit for low-income individuals and families that appears on federal income tax returns. The credit rewards work and allows individuals to remain in the workforce. More than $30 billion each year is refundable through the EITC, helping more than four million people escape poverty n a stunning policy success. To facilitate greater enrollment for the EITC and fight poverty, twenty-two states, two cities, and the District of Columbia now offer EITC supplements ranging from 3.5 percent to 35 percent of the value of the federal EITC. California, unfortunately, is not on this list.

Designed effectively, and with sufficient civic support, a city of San Diego Working Families Credit (WFC) could accomplish three policy objectives: 1) cut sales and property taxes for the poor; 2) boost EITC enrollment to help pay for life’s necessities; and 3) facilitate higher participation in public and private programs that encourage work skill development, financial planning, and greater economic opportunity.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 15 percent to 25 percent of qualified working Americans fail to enroll for the EITC each year, a potential loss of $22-$42 million to the city of San Diego. A San Diego WFC would reduce this gap, and help community groups and government officials target working families for additional program outreach. Information received from WFC enrollees can be used to connect recipients with helpful organizations such as the San Diego Workforce Partnership, providing them valuable information that can further help them provide for their families and escape poverty, such as financial planning, education, job placement and skill training. To expedite its implementation, a pilot WFC program can be financed partly through private sponsorships and charitable contributions, as San Francisco’s EITC supplement was in 2005.

2.) Improving the high school graduation rate: Each year, more than 5,550 students drop out of public high school in San Diego County. That is unacceptable. No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school and sentence them to an unproductive adulthood.

One strong option to address this concern is school choice, whereby parents have the opportunity to send their children to higher-performing private schools, using public vouchers or private scholarships to offset higher educational costs. Vouchers have proven to make a change in the lives of students who use them; according to a key study from the Manhattan Institute, students who had vouchers to attend private schools in the Milwaukee area graduated at a 28 percent higher rate than their peers at nearby public schools. Absent changes in state and federal law to allow public vouchers, the merits of a robust community scholarship program for low-income children should be weighed. Popular low-income scholarship programs have been established in such cities as Indianapolis, San Antonio, Atlanta, Detroit, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where millions of dollars have been privately raised to send promising young poor youth to the schools of their choice, increasing academic achievement and graduation rates.

3.) Expanding Internet access to every neighborhood: As we enter an age of global competitiveness, the availability of high speed Internet connections or “broadband” is becoming increasingly relevant to economic and educational advancement for our workforce and our youth. Though private investment in broadband technologies has successfully reached millions of American homes, telecommunications infrastructure is often sparse in low-income neighborhoods, a result of the high franchise taxes, rights-of-way restrictions and red tape that reduce corporate capital expenditures and leaves fewer service options for the poor.

San Diegans should consider pursuing “universal broadband” by following the state of Kentucky’s success in expanding broadband penetration. In 2005, Kentucky state leaders built a private-public partnership to bridge the digital divide, which is now set to achieve a 100 percent broadband penetration rate by the end of this year. Known as the “Prescription for Innovation” (PFI), Kentucky’s plan was two-fold: 1) compile a statewide “broadband inventory map” of current high-speed Internet infrastructure, and 2) work with citizens to facilitate bottom-up strategies to close identified broadband service gaps and expand adoption. PFI is being led by a non-profit, and broadband service providers (BSP) have been enthusiastic to participate, as onerous regulations have been lifted to help them invest in new neighborhoods and sign up new customers.

— VINCE VASQUEZ

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