DON’T ASK, DON’T YELL: If ignorance is bliss, how come 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal ain’t smiling? Carbajal, the 900-pound gorilla among South Coast Dems, celebrated his 49th birthday last Friday. And for a change, Carbajal did not observe that high Holy Day by hosting a checkbook party and inviting all the usual high rollers and well-heeled donors who like to make friends and influence people. Instead, Carbajal was given the political equivalent of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick as a pre-birthday present by Steve Lavagnino, who represents the Santa Maria area on the Board of Supervisors. Last Tuesday, Carbajal asked his fellow supervisors to support his proposal to spend $30,000 in county funds to help pay for a serious study of poverty in Santa Barbara County. This money would be matched with another $30,000 in federal funds. Amazingly — or perhaps not — no such studies have ever been done. For most people, $30,000 still qualifies as serious cash. But at the Board of Supervisors, it’s barely a symbolic gesture. Because four votes are needed to approve the transfer of county funds from one account to the other, Carbajal found himself forced to go trolling for support from one of the two supervisors operating north of the Gaviota Tunnel. To signify that the matter was personally important to him, Carbajal cleared his throat in that meaningful manner common to elected officials everywhere. And he did so in the general direction of supervisor Lavagnino. Had Lavagnino’s predecessor, Joe Centeno — who happily played crusty Mr. Wilson to Carbajal’s Dennis the Menace — still been in office, the matter would have been a slam dunk, and the money would have been approved. That Lavagnino left Carbajal hanging speaks volumes about how things will be going — or not going — at the Board of Supes in the years to come.
When it comes to poverty in Santa Barbara County, there’s clearly a lot to study, and it’s growing all the time. It’s worth noting that the Foodbank’s annual Thanksgiving turkey drive came up dramatically short this year. In most years, about three weeks before Thanksgiving, the Foodbank theatrically confesses to some willing media outlet how it’s woefully behind in turkey donations. This time-tested ruse can be counted on to spark an avalanche of frozen Butterballs. But this year, for whatever reason, it didn’t. As a result, Foodbank administrators had to dip into cash reserves to pay cash dollar for the genetically-mutated birds — about 2,000 — to bridge the turkey gap and deliver about 3,700 in time for Thanksgiving. That’s money that would otherwise be needed to help cover the skyrocketing cost of peanut butter — an especially critical staple for those to whom hunger is not some abstract possibility to be studied by elected officials. Peanut butter prices, it turns out, are increasing 30 to 40 percent because this summer’s heat wave and accompanying drought decimated the United States’ peanut butter crop. Foodbank numbers are far from perfect, but since the Great Recession of 2008, demand for its services countywide has jumped from roughly 110,000 visits a year to 160,000. Some ill-defined percentage of these are repeat customers — and roughly one-third are working adults — but still, that’s a big jump. It’s one thing to quote the Bible and say with fatalistic finality, the poor we will always have with us. But when the numbers jump like that, you might want to better understand why.
According to the latest U.S. Census figures, the poverty numbers are jumping all over the place. Santa Barbara is no different. Roughly 75,000 — 18 percent — of the 400,000 people who make Santa Barbara County their home live below the federal poverty level. That’s up from nearly 12 percent in 2007. Of these, 21.7 percent — or 21,000 — are children. Part of the explanation is pretty obvious. There’s a recession going on. Since June 2007, 18,552 jobs have been “lost” countywide. In that same time, the County of Santa Barbara has experienced an 84-percent increase in the number of food stamp recipients. (Given the prohibitively strict documentation requirements, those figures are probably way lower than the actual number of people who could qualify.) As expected, poverty is most acute in North County, where Mr. Lavagnino lives. Santa Maria, for example, experienced a 91-percent increase in the number of people receiving food stamps; by contrast, Santa Barbara experienced a 63-percent increase. But mysteriously, the relative percentage of kids living in poverty is much higher in Santa Barbara than it is in Santa Maria.
The latest Census data on poverty levels fails to account for the higher cost of living afflicting coastal communities like ours. If the gap between what it actually costs to live here and what people get paid were to be examined more rigorously, the true numbers would undoubtedly be more alarming. In the past five years, the median family lost $5,000 a year in income. According to an entity calling itself the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, it costs $66,779 for a family of four to make it “sustainably” here in Santa Barbara. The “good” news is that the median income for a family of four is $70 higher than that. The bad news is that people making 300 percent of the federal poverty level are just barely keeping their noses above water.
In a county that’s studied to death the mating habits of endangered lizards who procreate only by the light of the full moon during monsoon rainstorms, maybe it would behoove us to understand how the “other” 75,000 Homo sapiens live. Certainly if it’s true — as Carbajal alleges — that the county has committed to spending $150,000 to study its potential future phone needs, then it seems the $30,000 to study poverty is a drop in the bucket. I also understand it looks bad to spend anything on studies when the county is looking at a $15-million shortfall. And what’s the point of getting fresh new insights about an intractable problem, especially if you know you can’t do anything about it? Who knows? Maybe we’d actually discover new ways that we can. As birthdays go, last week wasn’t a total bust for Carbajal. The Santa Barbara Foundation, was moved to pony up the money that the county supervisors wouldn’t. Let’s hope they find out something useful.