Two weeks before voters decide whether to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom, a second round of stimulus payments is landing in the bank accounts of Californians who make less than $75,000 per year — with one glaring carve-out.
To get the money, you must have earned income last year — for example, from work, interest, rental income or private pensions — and filed tax returns. That excludes potentially hundreds of thousands of low-income retirees, veterans and disabled Californians who receive government benefits and do not work.
They live on fixed incomes — and they're asking why they were left out. Nearly 700 people have signed a petition to urge Newsom to send the benefit to people on Social Security Disability Insurance. More than 60 elderly and disabled readers have contacted CalMatters to express their frustration. In interviews and emails, 13 of them said that being left out of the Golden State Stimulus has caused them to doubt Newsom's leadership, if they didn't already.
"I'm very upset at him for that," said Chris Cummins, 64, who rents a house in Martinez with her daughter and three of her grandchildren. She said she lives on $1,197 a month in disability benefits and $395 in widow's insurance. Usually a Democrat, Cummins has lost faith in Newsom. Unconvinced by his opponents, she's considering not voting at all in the Sept. 14 recall election.
Would it change her mind if Newsom decided to give the stimulus to anyone making less than $75,000 per year, regardless of whether their income comes from work or government benefits?
"Yeah, I think it would," Cummins said. "And I think it would change a lot of people's minds on that. A lot of us are struggling."
It's difficult to predict how much this frustration could affect Newsom's odds of overcoming the recall. Those left out of the stimulus — far outnumbered by the 15 million-plus tax filers who do qualify — are a diverse group with conflicting voting patterns. They don't usually get bundled together in campaign strategy. And it's difficult to estimate how numerous they are, though it could be in the range of 500,000 to 2 million.
What's clear is that Newsom's $11.9 billion plan to hand out cash to Californians — which Republican challengers labeled as a ploy to buy votes — has, in fact, lost him some support from low-income seniors and Californians with disabilities.
Sherriel Weithers started the online petition in the spring, after learning she couldn't qualify because her income is from disability insurance. The 58-year-old resident of the San Gabriel Valley said she usually votes for Democrats, but this policy cemented her already deteriorating opinion of Newsom. As the petition started collecting signatures, she realized she wasn't alone: "We all feel that it's unfair that we're being excluded. We all have bills to pay just like everyone else."
"We've all gone through COVID together…. No one was excluded from that experience," Weithers added. "They should give everyone the opportunity to recover, not just taxpayers."
Newsom's anti-recall campaign declined to comment on how concerned it is about these voters, or what efforts it is making to reach out to senior and disability communities. Several of the major Republican recall candidates have slammed the governor over the stimulus, including for making undocumented people eligible.
Andrew Imparato, executive director of Disability Rights California, said that while he was disappointed by the stimulus policy, a "holistic" view of Newsom's track record on issues related to disability communities shows that there's a lot at stake if he's removed from office.
Imparato cited Newsom's master plan for aging, his emphasis on solving homelessness and the willingness of his health department to respond to the concerns of disability advocates during the pandemic.
Cummins says she can hardly afford to live in California anymore. She helps her daughter pay rent, but can't afford her own place. The cost of food has jumped, as have her medical costs, since she was diagnosed last summer with Grave's disease, an immune system disorder.
She said she receives disability insurance because she has bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder from several abusive relationships. Her benefit puts her just over the threshold to qualify for most other public assistance, so "I'm like caught in the middle," Cummins said. A descendant of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, Cummins said that applying for tribal benefits, such as free medical care and help with housing, has so far been a bureaucratic obstacle course.
For Cummins, who usually votes for Democrats, Newsom has two big failures: limiting stimulus payments to people who work, and not doing more to get homeless people housed.
"I'm blessed. I can go live with my other daughter. But when you drive down the street and see all the homeless people, what are you doing for these people?" Cummins asked. "If anybody should get a stimulus check, maybe they should."
In February, lawmakers approved Newsom's Golden State Stimulus program to send $600 payments to about 5.7 million of California's lowest-income workers, with extra help for undocumented workers who file taxes.
Families enrolled in CalWorks were also made automatically eligible. So were elderly, blind and disabled people who receive Supplemental Security Income. But recipients of other disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance, were not included.
In May, with California overflowing in tax revenue from its wealthiest residents and federal relief dollars, Newsom proposed sending the payments to California's middle class, too. Lawmakers approved the plan in late June.
Under the expansion, taxpayers earning as much as $75,000 a year qualify for a $600 payment. Families with at least one dependent get a $500 boost, which increases to $1,000 if they are undocumented and file taxes.
However, the state delayed clarifying what kinds of income made people eligible for the stimulus, confusing many Californians on fixed incomes.
Only in late July did the state tax agency update its webpage to clarify that income from various public assistance programs — Social Security, disability insurance and veterans disability benefits — didn't count.
That leaves out Crystal Vazquez, 64, who lives in a trailer in Prunedale, near Salinas. She said she can't afford any other housing on her disability benefits of less than $1,400 per month, and her bad back prevents her from working regularly.
She used the federal stimulus checks to remodel her Airstream's kitchen and repaint the interior. With the state stimulus she planned to build an L-shaped couch so that her family could be more comfortable when they visit.
Scouring state websites, she concluded that disability income didn't qualify her for the stimulus. In March, Vazquez tried filing a tax return for $240 she had earned in 2020. But she says she never received the $600, which she still doesn't understand. She repeatedly called the state tax agency, but never got through to a person.
A lifelong Democrat who said she voted for Newsom three years ago, Vazquez said that this experience has jaded her and she's not sure how to vote in the recall. She said Newsom says one thing but does another — like promising the Golden State Stimulus to millions of low-income people, but leaving out those who can't work due to their disabilities.
"You just erased a whole section of society, and we feel pretty marginalized and erased already," Vazquez said. "And we vote."
When asked in June why those receiving disability payments were not automatically made eligible, Newsom's administration cited logistical challenges. California maintains an up-to-date list of residents who get Supplemental Security Income, but doesn't have access to the same information for Social Security Disability Insurance.
A spokesperson in Newsom's office pointed out in an email that several forms of income besides wages from work could make people eligible, but sidestepped questions about why people whose only income comes from Social Security or disability benefits can't qualify for the stimulus payment.
How many Californians could that be?
• California is home to about 673,000 people who receive Social Security Disability Insurance, but not Supplemental Security Income, according to the Social Security Agency. National research shows that fewer than one in five recipients work during a typical year, so the vast majority didn't qualify for the stimulus.
• About 4.6 million Californians receive Social Security retirement income, but it's unclear how many have no other forms of income, and thus wouldn't qualify. National research shows that about 40% of all retired adults rely solely on Social Security retirement income.
• About 355,000 veterans in California received disability compensation in 2015, but it's unclear how many have no other forms of income.
It's a large group of potential voters, but it's difficult to predict how much they could sway the recall. Low-income voters and older voters both tend to lean blue in California and favor keeping Newsom in office, according to a July poll by the UC Berkeley Institute for Government Studies. However, poor voters are less likely to cast ballots, while older voters consistently have the highest voter turnout rates.
No statewide polls have zeroed in on low-income older voters, or asked people whether they have disabilities or are veterans. National studies show that both groups vote less often than the general population and veterans tend to vote Republican.
The first thing Donna Shelden would buy with a $600 stimulus payment is a screen door to cool down her Santa Ana mobile home, which sometimes tops 100 degrees in the summer. But she doesn't qualify.
After 28 years of working in the life insurance industry, the 65-year-old retired early and started receiving Social Security retirement income three years ago, when the chronic pain that stretches from the right side of her neck to her fingers got to be too much.
Shelden supports herself and her 45-year-old son, who struggles with multiple physical and mental health issues, on her benefit of $1,492 per month. Between $801 rent at the mobile home park, the cost of utilities, car insurance and groceries, she comes up with about $20 to spare each month.
Shelden said she's a registered Republican, but is open to any candidate with good policy. She signed the petition to recall Newsom.
One of Shelden's big complaints, shared by others who CalMatters interviewed: The Golden State Stimulus included extra benefits for undocumented workers, but nothing for U.S. citizens who can no longer work.
"It doesn't really seem fair to me," Shelden said.
Newsom has explained that he gave extra help to undocumented workers because they have been excluded from federal stimulus checks, as well as unemployment benefits if they lost work during the pandemic.
"When the federal government was not able to provide those supports, the state of California will step in to do what we can," Newsom said in May, while announcing his spending plan.
But Newsom's top challenger in the polls, Republican radio host Larry Elder, quickly pounced.
"Illegal aliens qualify for the Golden State Stimulus but Californians on Social Security disability benefits do not," Elder said in a statement. "It makes zero sense, but this is one of the many failures of Gavin Newsom."
Though Elder said he sympathized "with those left out," he wouldn't expand the stimulus to include them. Instead, he said he'd make California more affordable by cutting taxes and regulation.
Republican recall candidate Kevin Faulconer, a former mayor of San Diego, called Newsom's exclusion of people with disabilities "unfair." He said he'd address the cost of living for people on fixed incomes by making retirement benefits for veterans tax-free.
Kevin Kiley, a Republican Assemblymember from Rocklin, has characterized the stimulus payments as part of the "playbook of corrupt regimes." Republican recall candidate Caitlyn Jenner, an Olympic gold medalist and reality television star, has likened the program to a "bribe" and criticized it for doing nothing to entice businesses to move back to California.
Newsom's main Democratic challenger, Kevin Paffrath, took a different tack.
"I would be absolutely willing to work with the Legislature… to make sure that those left out of the Golden State stimulus would actually receive what they're owed," said the real estate agent and YouTube show host.
That might be enough to convince Marcus Buchanan, a 41-year-old Iraq veteran who lives in Lake County. Buchanan receives full Veterans Affairs disability benefits due to multiple health conditions and post traumatic stress disorder from his time in combat.
Though he usually votes Republican, Buchanan was satisfied with how Newsom was handling a year of crises. That is, until he learned he and other disabled vets couldn't qualify for the stimulus.
He said he contacted multiple congressional leaders, and even wrote a letter to Newsom. He's still researching Newsom's challengers, but plans to vote for someone who takes care of veterans.
"If Newsom isn't going to support my people," Buchanan said, "it makes it very hard for me to support him."
This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.