Lawmakers have passed a suite of bills that aim to ease financial burdens for Californians living paycheck to paycheck.
While several new California laws have sparked national attention — such as the law that will convert gig economy workers into full employees and another to cap large rent increases — state legislators quietly approved dozens of other bills that address challenges faced by California’s poor.
Among this year’s batch of anti-poverty bills, several tinker with public assistance programs to make them easier to get and to use. Others aim to protect people from financial catastrophes caused by crushing debt.
While Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed several into law, many still await his yay or nay before Sunday, Oct. 13, the final deadline of the legislative session.
“We’re living in the wealthiest as well as the poorest state in America,” Newsom said before signing a package of renter protection bills on Oct. 8. “And while we’ve made some progress on our poverty rate it’s still the highest in the nation for one reason: cost of living.”
As usual, many of the more ambitious proposals never made it to the governor’s desk. Take a bill that would have required counties to increase participation in CalFresh, California’s food stamp program, to 95 percent by 2024 — up from 72 percent at the state’s last count in 2017 — but was quietly snuffed in the final weeks of the legislative session. In addition, a bill that would have made it difficult to tow the vehicles of people who live in them failed. Cities, law enforcement agencies and real estate lobbies opposed it.
This year’s budget negotiations also left some disappointments for progressive lawmakers who were testing the limits of the governor’s ambitious agenda and record budget surplus.
While Newsom’s budget more than doubled the size of the state’s tax credit for low-wage earners, undocumented workers who file taxes were left out during final negotiations, disappointing immigrant advocates. Likewise, lawmakers negotiated a budget deal to expand free health insurance to low-income, undocumented young adults, but ultimately tabled a proposal to do the same for undocumented seniors.
Here’s a roundup of some of the key bills that could make life just a little easier for millions of low-income Californians. Think of these bills as a bit like aspirin: they don’t get at the roots of poverty but they could relieve some of the pain.
Check back at CalMatters.org for updates on our running tally leading up to the Oct. 13 deadline.
Buying hot meals with food stamps
Two bills introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego, would expand a program that allows some people who struggle to cook to buy hot, prepared food using CalFresh dollars. The federal food stamps program otherwise prohibits the purchase of hot meals. AB 942 would expand the program to all 58 counties, up from 10 that have opted in thus far. AB 612 would allow community college campuses across the state to participate in the program as well.
Who would benefit: CalFresh recipients who are seniors, disabled, homeless or students at participating campuses.
Who would be hurt: These bills flew through the legislative process with little opposition.
The governor has not yet signed or vetoed the bill.
Making child support less ‘punitive’
Two bills aim to reform the state’s child support system, which critics say disproportionately burdens low-income families. Currently, families with children who receive public benefits such as CalWORKs or Medi-Cal only get $50 of child support each month, while the rest goes to the government to pay for their public assistance. SB 337, from Sen. Nancy Skinner, an Oakland Democrat, would increase the amount that families on public assistance receive in monthly child support payments. It also would forgive child support debt owed by some very low-income parents. AB 1092 from Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, would stop the state from charging 10 percent interest on unpaid child support for children on public assistance.
Who would benefit: Families who use public assistance and receive child support, as well as parents with growing child support debt.
Who would be hurt: The state’s coffers. Together the bills would result in estimated revenue losses over $300 million annually, split between the federal, state and local governments.
The governor has not yet signed or vetoed the bills.
More savings for welfare recipients
As part of the budget deal signed by Newsom in June, lawmakers increased the total savings that people can have while receiving CalWORKS, California’s cash assistance program, from $2,250 to $10,000. Under the new law, CalWORKS recipients also now can own vehicles with a value of up to $25,000, up from $9,500. A more aggressive bill introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, would have done away with the asset limits altogether, but was gutted during budget negotiations.
Who would benefit: Families with savings or vehicles above the old limits who will now qualify for CalWORKS, as well as recipients who previously kept their savings low to stay on the program.
Who would be hurt: Opponents argue that expanding eligibility for public benefits programs like CalWORKS will allow families to enroll who don’t need it.
Protecting the last $1,724 in your bank account
SB 616, introduced by Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Fremont Democrat, requires debt collectors to leave at least $1,724 in a person’s combined bank accounts. While the bill does not forgive the debt or prohibit the collector from going after debt by other means, such as garnishing paychecks, it does ensure that a person’s bank account will be left with the minimum amount that a family of four needs to survive for a month.
Who would benefit: People with debt, a bank account and limited savings.
Who would be hurt: The debt collection industry, which has argued that the limit is so high that it will effectively prohibit the practice of collecting debt from bank accounts.
The governor signed the bill into law on Oct 7.
Fending off predatory lenders
AB 539 from Assemblywoman Monique Limón, a Santa Barbara Democrat, places a maximum interest rate of roughly 38 percent on consumer loans between $2,500 and $10,000. It follows multiple failed bills from prior years that aimed to regulate a growing industry of consumer lenders who often charge interest rates in the triple digits. California joins 38 states that have approved similar caps.
Who would benefit: Borrowers who resort to small loans with very high interest rates, often due to poor credit history.
Who would be hurt: Consumer lenders who specialize in these loans. Groups including the Los Angeles Metro Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the California Black Chamber of Commerce argued that the interest cap could shut off access to credit for some borrowers.
Newsom signed the bill into law on Oct. 10.
Making Medi-Cal paperwork make sense
Introduced by Assemblyman Kansen Chu, a Milpitas Democrat, AB 318 would require the state Department of Health Care Services to improve the readability and translations of 10 of the most important Medi-Cal documents. The documents would be tested by focus groups of native speakers and community-based organizations.
Who would benefit: People who have trouble understanding Medi-Cal paperwork.
Who would be hurt: The Department of Finance has opposed the bill due to possibly high costs of testing and translating materials. The bill passed both houses on a partisan vote.
The governor has not yet signed or vetoed the bill.
Banning discrimination against Section 8 tenants
While current law prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants for reasons such as race and disability, SB 329 from Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, bans landlords from rejecting tenants because they receive federal Section 8 housing vouchers. A dozen other states have passed similar bans.
Who would benefit: People with Section 8 vouchers who struggle to find landlords who will consider them before their vouchers expire.
Who would be hurt: Landlords who post ads that say “No Section 8” could be sued by the state’s civil right’s department. Landlords argued they would lose time and money if forced to consider Section 8 tenants.
Newsom signed the bill on Oct. 8, along with a package of tenant protection bills that included California’s new cap on large rent increases.
Getting more children on CalFresh
AB 1377, introduced by Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, an Oakland Democrat, requires that the state and counties to identify an estimated 940,000 children who are eligible for CalFresh but not yet enrolled, using data collected across the free and reduced-price school meals program, Medi-Cal and CalFresh.
Who would benefit: Children eligible for CalFresh, but not currently receiving it.
Who would be hurt: The bill garnered nearly unanimous support in both chambers of the legislature.
Newsom signed the bill into law on Oct 2.
* Jackie Botts is a journalist at CalMatters working for The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.