United for Good: A Year in Reflection and the Road Ahead at United Ways of California
Read time: 6 minutes
As we step full force into 2024, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on the momentum we generated together in 2023 and, as we navigate our path ahead, build on our lessons learned as we move forward to build a more equitable California.
Looking Back on a Year of Purposeful Action
Californians Empowered: The Heart of Our Impact
United Way’s mission is to ensure every Californian has equitable access to opportunities that allow them to live a good life. In 2023, California’s United Way network continued to be laser-focused on the heart of our community impact work: uplifting and empowering Californians by connecting individuals and families to the tools, resources, and programs they need to thrive.
Here’s a glimpse into some of the direct impact we achieved together:
- Put Money Back into Communities Through Free Tax Help. In 2023, we helped connect California tax filers to over $1.3 billion in California tax credits like the California Earned Income Tax Credit and Young Child Tax Credit. We also enabled Californians to save $32 million through free tax preparation assistance and self-filing resources through MyFreeTaxes.org. By empowering families with financial tools and connecting them to up to thousands of dollars in tax credits, we witnessed stories of resilience begin to transform into pathways to self-sufficiency.
- Provided Economic Relief to over 40,000 Farmworkers. With $42 million in funding from the USDA, we embarked on a multi-county effort in partnership with 15 local United Ways to distribute vital relief payments to food and farm workers, directly impacting thousands of families across the state.
- Connected Californians to Resources in Times of Crisis — Big and Small. Working alongside 13 California United Ways, the 211 network fielded approximately 2 million callers and connected people across the state to local emergency services, job search resources, health insurance, housing assistance, legal resources, utility assistance, childcare, food banks, and so much more.
- Strengthened Resilience through Disaster Preparedness: Facing several devastating natural disasters in 2023, we supported response and recovery efforts to address California’s surge of winter storms in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Merced Counties. We also organized calls with leaders of United Ways across the western region to boost the local response to Maui’s wildfires by helping their local United Ways better anticipate and respond to requests in real time. To build resilience, we strengthened disaster preparedness efforts in 20 counties supported by 11 local United Ways and connected regions that experienced natural disasters with response and recovery resources. We also conducted in-depth research on 30 California counties and helped bridge gaps through coordination and funding to improve local connections with disaster response partners.
- Increased Access to Broadband. We helped screen and enroll thousands of Californians into low-cost internet options, including the Federal Affordable Connectivity Program, and expanded our suite of outreach resources to help partners better connect their communities in all corners of California to free broadband.
- Expanded Transportation Access. We connected seniors, veterans, and other Californians in need to over 20,000 free Lyft rides — helping community members and their families get safely to COVID vaccination appointments, employment opportunities, health care visits, and social service appointments.
Advocacy in Action: Systems Change Deepens Community Impact
We know that advancing the common good is not just about helping one person or family at a time, it is also about changing systems to ensure all Californians thrive. We all win when a child succeeds in school, when families are financially stable, and when people are healthy. Through our statewide coordination, education, outreach, and advocacy, we aim to not just reach every Californian in need — we aim to make systemic change to uplift California as a whole.
In 2023, our advocacy work reached far and wide, amplifying the needs and aspirations of marginalized voices. From legislative successes to strengthening coalitions, our united voice moved the needle further to break down barriers and make meaningful systems change.
Specifically, United Ways across the state effectively engaged with decision-makers on our network’s legislative and budgetary priorities, resulting in six sponsored bills focused on expanding resources in times of crisis, keeping our most vulnerable families housed, and putting vital money back into the hands of Californians (and in return, benefiting our local economies).
- AB 1128 (Santiago) to Expand Eligibility for the Young Child Tax Credit
- AB 1498 (Gipson) to Expand the CalEITC minimum from $1 to $300
- SB 352 (Padilla) to Establish a California Living Wage Formula
- AB 653 (Reyes) to Establish the Housing Voucher Acceleration Program
- SB 318 (Ochoa-Bogh) to Establish the 211 Infrastrastructure Act
- AB 590 (Hart) to Support Advance Payments for Nonprofit State Contracting — signed into law in 2023
Living Our Commitment to Equity
The future we envision for California is anchored in our belief that we must create equitable access for every person in every county across our state — regardless of race, age, or economic status — and that every individual has the resources and opportunities they need to authentically thrive. But we also know that in order to address inequities as a whole across the state, we need to first better understand and create transparency around how these issues still show up in our communities, workplaces, and day-to-day lives.
Shedding Light on California’s Economic Inequities
In 2023, we released our fifth Real Cost Measure study, a comprehensive analysis on what it really takes to make ends meet in California. Unlike the official poverty measure which primarily accounts for the cost of food, the Real Cost Measure addresses a more accurate account of the costs of housing, food, health care, child care, and other basic needs to reveal what it really costs to live in California. Real Cost Measure data show that 1 in 3 California households struggle to meet the costs of a decent standard of living, despite 97% of households having at least one working adult. This sheds light on the systemic issues that only further deepen economic inequities across our state. To widen our state’s collective understanding of the issues underscored in our study, we engaged with local United Ways and community organizations to better understand how Real Cost Measure data impacted their communities and, notably, what we can do as a state through education, outreach, and advocacy to help address economic inequities and effect positive change.
Working Inside Out
We deepened our commitment to equity last year by adding an experienced person to lead our equity work. This was a pivotal step for our network and a crucial role dedicated to not only shaping a diverse and inclusive organizational culture within United Ways of California, but also helping foster, support, and collaborate on equity initiatives across all of our United Ways. Mikela Thomas, our Associate Director of Equity and Inclusion, is helping build community and learning among colleagues driving equity at United Ways across the state.
Mission in Motion: What’s Ahead for 2024
Together, we laid the strong foundation for positive change in 2023. As we navigate 2024, our commitment to uplifting families and building a more equitable California remains steadfast.
Here are a few glimpses into what we’re gearing up for:
Strengthening the Power of our Network
In the year ahead, we will continue to make strategic investments to strengthen the bonds within our network, convening our members and fostering connection and collaboration to align on education, outreach, and advocacy initiatives among local United Ways across the state. This commitment will come to life through ongoing collaborations and state network meetings, providing continued opportunities for meaningful dialogue, collaboration, and shared alignment. We also look forward to the Western Regional Conference this summer, where our network will come together, exchange ideas, and further fortify our collective impact.
Empowering Futures: Expanding Community Outreach Initiatives
Just a few examples of ways California United Ways, working together, will create meaningful impact and be responsive to the diverse and changing needs of Californians over the next year include:
- Continuing our successful work providing direct cash support to California food and farm workers
- Connecting over 200,000 individuals to free tax help
- Helping California families put money back in their pockets through life-changing tax credits
- Enhancing 211 systems and data infrastructure to more effectively meet community members where they are at and connect them with available resources
Shaping Legislation for Lasting Change
In the year ahead, we remain dedicated to advancing our policy work, leveraging our collective influence to shape legislation that brings positive and lasting change to the communities we serve. Our commitment extends beyond traditional boundaries as we actively sponsor bills, advocate for equity-driven solutions, and strive to be a driving force for legislative change that promotes a more just and inclusive California.
We anticipate a busy Legislative session in 2024, with a focus as a network on several high-priority issues:
- Expanding cash supports to households through programs like tax credits, free tax prep assistance, outreach grants, and guaranteed income projects
- Establishing support for 211 infrastructure, including funding for the network and a partnership with the Administration
- Ensuring health coverage is affordable and health care is accessible and inclusive of expanded benefits like social care and housing support
- Increasing navigation support for voucher-eligible and housing-insecure Californians
- Establishing a state Living Wage Formula based on the Real Cost Measure
- Ensuring that all nonprofits are set up for success through state contracting and grants
Unfaltering Commitment to Equity
A California that belongs to all of us is an equitable California, in which every individual can live without barriers limiting their potential. Our commitment to equity will remain inherently rooted in all of our work.
Moving Forward, United
As we embark on the journey of this year ahead, we’re proud to carry the spirit of unity and shared purpose that defines our work at United Way. Together, we are not just a network; we are a force for positive change, we are United for Good. In every initiative, our collective strength moves us toward a brighter, more equitable future for all.
Thank you for being an integral part of that united force, shaping a California where goodness prevails, where families have the opportunities to live a good life, and where every Californian in every corner of the Golden State has the resources to not just survive, but to authentically thrive. That’s the California we will continue to fight for by your side in 2024 — and beyond.