What makes a community safe? For low-income families, safety is not about sheriffs and prisons. Here in Kern County, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office is one of the deadliest and most dangerous police forces in the country, according to investigations by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Guardian.
Yet Kern County spends more than half of its discretionary budget, including $218 million in fiscal year 2017-18, toward “public protection,” much of which goes toward law enforcement.
Comparatively, the county has spent only 10 percent of this amount ($23 million) on parks and recreation over the entire past decade.
Instead of continuing to pour money into violent policing, Kern County should invest more in basic community assets that directly improve the safety and quality of life for low-income families.
It’s important for community members in Kern County to participate the budget process decisions. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will be releasing a draft budget at their meeting. This draft will include plans for community assets that are the most important to low-income Kern communities — basic infrastructure and services that ensure their neighborhoods are safe to walk and live in. Many low-income communities, especially those in unincorporated parts of the county, sorely need paved streets, sidewalks, crosswalks, stop signs, and street lights. They also need local parks with lights, after-school programs for youth, and community centers for the elderly and families.
These are the things that residents want and need to not only be secure, but also to build a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, low-income communities throughout Kern County have not seen such investments for decades, which has resulted in unhealthy and unsafe living conditions.
Thanks to years of advocacy by local groups alongside my organization, the Center on Race, Poverty and Environment, the county is beginning to invest in the basic needs of underserved communities in South Kern.
However, the investments that are underway are small and piecemeal. These one-time investments are also a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on law enforcement each year. If the county is really watching out for the best interest of the most under-served families throughout Kern, it should continuously set aside significant street infrastructure as well as parks and recreation discretionary funding to improve these communities.
In making long-term investments in low-income communities, the county will be able to directly correct systemic inequities and begin to improve neighborhood safety, health and quality of life throughout Kern.
Gustavo Aguirre is Director of Organizing at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, an environmental justice organization providing legal and organizing assistance to grassroots groups, low-income people, and communities of color. The opinions expressed are his own.