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DeSaulnier founds an ‘EPIC’ anti-poverty caucus

California’s Legislature has a new caucus focused on poverty and income inequality, an East Bay lawmaker announced Thursday.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, will chair the Ending Poverty and Inequality in California (EPIC) Caucus.

Mark DeSaulnierBill Monning suggested that name, and as a fan of Upton Sinclair, I immediately liked it,” DeSauliner said Thursday afternoon.

Through the difficult budgets of recent years, “a lot of my frustration was that there’s not a lot of research that indicates what a good investment is” to abate poverty and reduce inequality, he said. Just as the Legislature’s Environmental Caucus has been instrumental in developing landmark legislation that has put California ahead of the nation and world on various issues, so too does DeSaulnier hope this new caucus will do likewise.

But he doesn’t underestimate the magnitude of the task the caucus must tackle, he said. “I’m excited, knowing that we have a lot to prove and that this is something that has vexed the industrial west and the American scene even since the Industrial Revolution.”

Nearly one in four Californians lives in poverty, a third of impoverished Californians are children, and the state is home to nearly a third of the nation’s chronically homeless people, DeSaulnier said. “Endemic, crippling poverty should no longer exist amidst the world’s greatest wealth. As more Californians struggle to remain in the middle class, our entire economy is hindered. This caucus is our commitment to tackle the causes of poverty and inequality in California in a bi-cameral, data-driven manner.”

DeSaulnier said the caucus will take a bipartisan approach, embracing neither liberal orthodoxy about spending nor libertarian orthodoxy about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. “My hope is we’ll be guided by the research,” he said. “We need to incentivize people to get to work, but we also recognize that different people have different obstacles.”

The caucus has the support of State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, and if it proves to be a fruitful starting point, could eventually evolve into a joint committee, DeSaulnier said.

He envisions the caucus as a conduit through which lawmakers can hear from some of the foremost thinkers on these issues. He said Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz – “I’m a fan, I’ve read all his books,” DeSaulnier said – has agreed to come speak, and the caucus will pursue input from and perhaps partnerships with experts at Stanford, UC-Davis and other institutions.

The EPIC Caucus’ initial partners include the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Service Employees International Union California, the California Business Roundtable, and the County Welfare Directors Association of California.

“We see the faces and know the children and families behind those stark numbers of the millions living in poverty. While we diligently work to help them meet their basic needs, we recognize more can and must be done to see lasting improvements in their lives,” said CWDA President Susan von Zabern, director of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services. “My colleagues and I appreciate Senator DeSaulnier’s leadership in this initiative, and look forward to working with he and Caucus members toward policy changes that best serve children and families.”