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Facing a significant budget shortfall, state leaders must do everything they can to protect critical services and exhaust all alternatives to cuts that would jeopardize people’s well being. This should include responsibly drawing on state budget reserves and raising additional revenue by making the tax system more fair.

California spends tens of billions of dollars each year on tax breaks, some of the largest of which benefit wealthy corporations and individuals. These tax breaks take billions of dollars away from communities, while perpetuating racial income and wealth gaps. Yet the governor proposes raising just $400 million by closing tax breaks this year — less than 1% of his proposed budget solutions.

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Making the tax system more fair should be a top long-term priority — not just to prevent cuts when there’s a budget shortfall, but to make possible the investments that are needed to help Californians thrive. All Californians deserve access to economic opportunity, housing, and health care, and policymakers have the means to achieve this vision through fairer taxation.

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California’s aid to low-income seniors and people with disabilities cannot compete with the high cost of housing. The Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP) grants help over 1 million low-income older adults and people with disabilities pay for housing and other necessities. However, the current individual grant of $1,183 is less than the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a studio apartment in 25 counties.

Cuts during the Great Recession still impact the SSI/SSP program today. During this period, the state repealed the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for the SSP grant. Had the COLA been protected, the SSP grant would be almost double what it is today.

Boosting the SSI/SSP grant levels is essential to helping low-income Californians make ends meet. Along with protecting recent improvements, state leaders can take further action by increasing the maximum grant for individuals and restoring the annual state COLA. 

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key takeaway

Income inequality in California widened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the richest 1% taking home a record share of statewide income. Policymakers can address this by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and profitable corporations.

California’s rich got richer during the pandemic. Recent data show that in 2021, when many Californians were struggling amid the COVID-19 recession, the share of statewide income going to the richest 1% spiked to a new high. The top 1% held nearly one-third (30.5%) of all income reported for state tax purposes that year — up from 23% in 2019 and their highest share on record (data before 1970 were not available). In fact, the top 1% held more income in 2021 than they did in 2000, at the peak of the dot-com boom.

Income inequality worsened in the pandemic. The average income of Californians in the top 1% rose from $2.3 million to $3.6 million between 2019 and 2021, while it declined for middle-income Californians, from $46,600 to $46,400. As a result, the top 1% had 78 times the income of middle-income Californians, on average, in 2021, up from 49 times the income just two years earlier. In fact, the average Californian in the top 1% earned in just five days what the average middle-income Californian earned in a year.

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Learn how California tax breaks are distributed in our Data Hit: Less Than 2% of State Tax Breaks Go to Californians with Low Incomes.

Californians want state policymakers to reduce inequality. Strong majorities of Californians know that income inequality has worsened and they want state policymakers to do more to address this problem, according to polling by PPIC. State leaders can do this by closing tax loopholes that favor the wealthy and profitable corporations in order to prioritize the significant investments needed to make housing, health care, child care, and other basic needs affordable for all Californians.

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key takeaway

California’s refundable tax credits for low-income residents make up a small fraction — less than 2% — of the state’s nearly $80 billion of tax breaks, which disproportionately benefit profitable corporations and the wealthy.

California’s three refundable tax credits — the California Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC), the Young Child Tax Credit, and the Foster Youth Tax Credit — are the only credits that benefit people with very low incomes.

Yet, these credits make up less than 2% of the nearly $80 billion total cost of state tax breaks for individuals and businesses. Many of these other tax breaks largely benefit high-income individuals and profitable corporations.

Everyone deserves an opportunity to achieve economic security. State leaders can make the tax system more fair by expanding credits that reach Californians with low incomes.

A donut chart showing the estimated cost of tax breaks in the fiscal year 2023-24 where tax credits for Californians with low incomes make up less than two percent of individual and business income tax breaks.

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