Nearly six decades ago, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy came to California and gave a resounding speech on the virtues of decency that holds permanence today. “If there is one overriding reality in this country,” he proclaimed, “it is the danger that we have an erosion of a sense of national decency.” Famously, he continued, “Poverty in this country is indecent.”
With news of a $31.5 billion budget deficit reverberating across the California, there is no better time to summon the late senator’s words and place them in the context of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to address it. In a state so full of riches and wealth, poverty is a policy choice. I see it every day in Half Moon Bay, a luxurious coastal enclave where the farmworker community perpetually struggles to afford a basic living.
In the coming days, the budget decisions this governor and Legislature make will shape the contours of morality for the next generation to emulate.
Already, Newsom’s latest announcement that California will provide $95 million to undocumented flood victims is a bold and necessary move to alleviate the pain that many farmworkers faced due to lost wages and displacement. It is also welcome news that California will invest $16 million in farmworker homeownership in places like Half Moon Bay, a moral action that Newsom is taking after visiting our community in the wake of a mass shooting in January.
And while these are good signs that we are serious about strengthening the social safety net, including expanding Medi-Cal to eligible noncitizens last year, the budget still falls short of honoring Senator Kennedy’s vision of a dignified nation.
Chief among them is the refusal to expand the California Food Assistance Program, CalFresh, to all income-eligible noncitizens under 55 years of age.
Through my work, I sit under a great irony of serving people who harvest our food but themselves suffer from food insecurity.
After record-setting rainfall and flooding earlier this year, these workers and their families struggled to recover. Combined with crushing inflation, the rising costs of food further weakened their ability to feed their families and drove them deeper into poverty.
Roughly three-quarters of farmworkers are undocumented, and most are excluded from many of California’s social safety net programs, including its food assistance program. It is part of why 1 in 3 farmworkers also live in poverty. And yet, it took a mass shooting in Half Moon Bay for the world to realize the dire circumstances our farmworkers experience on a daily basis.
In his second inaugural address, Newsom ended his speech reminding Californians that Kennedy once said that we will be judged by what we contribute to our communities. As a lifelong admirer of the late senator, the governor knows that it was Kennedy who brought light to the painful problem of hunger in America and decried its effects on children and families. It later served as a cornerstone of his campaign platform before his tragic assassination in Los Angeles 55 years ago this month.
Our farmworkers are already dealing with enormous stressors in their day-to-day lives, including the impacts of climate change, poverty wages, poor housing conditions and language and cultural barriers that altogether challenge their mental health.
Our farmworkers deserve better. Removing exclusions to the state’s food assistance program would be a major step in the right direction. Expanding unemployment insurance to them would be another.
It is no secret that Newsom has had his fair share of challenges throughout his time in office. From a pandemic to natural disasters, he is arguably the most tested, courageous and proven governor we have in our nation today. But closing the budget deficit while curing our state’s ills may be his biggest test yet. Newsom must no longer just invoke the promise Kennedy offered our nation but rather finish his march for decency, one our state and nation deserve.
Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga is the founder and executive director of Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a nonprofit serving the farmworker community in Half Moon Bay.