The Cruelest Cuts

The rumblings have been present for a considerable length of time. Two years ago, it was already evident that California was about to experience some monetary woes, and the situation has only grown worse since then. The state is in dire financial straits. Foreclosure rates are extremely high across California communities. Our unemployment rate is high. As a state we are facing the very real possibility of becoming insolvent, which raises some interesting questions about what, exactly, happens when a state becomes utterly insolvent. Are states too big to fail? If we aren’t, what happens when we do fail?

Some very difficult budgetary decisions have been made and we are going to be facing even more difficult ones in the not too distant future. It’s a direct consequence of fiscal mismanagement in California which has been occurring for decades, regardless as to the political orientation of the governor. There are all kinds of reasons for it, but a lot of it seems to come down to the idea that California has largely regarded itself as untouchable, and it’s consumed itself in the process.

Not for nothing do we call ourselves the Golden State. Oh, certainly, it’s a reference to the Gold Rush, but it’s also a reference to the idea that California has been regarded as the land of opportunity for a very long time. As a state where anyone with a little initiative can make it and where dreams come true, where gold is always within reach for those who are just willing to grasp for it. California is the maker of dreams, not just on Hollywood lots but in the way we market and advertise ourselves and the way we think about ourselves in relation to the rest of the country. California prides itself on what it is.

We’re on the sacred ‘coast,’ not the dreaded ‘flyover states,’ which must make us progressive, of course. And must make us innovative. And must mean that there is only one way for California to go, and that is up. There’s a reason that the tech bubble fell out the way it did, and California Dreams are a big part of it. It’s not surprising that some of the most expensive real estate in the country is located in California, that California wants to present itself as bigger and better than everywhere else. As special.

How the mighty are fallen. California got a little bit too big for its britches, evidently.

And the people who are going to pay for that are not the people who created the problem in the first place. There’s an interesting pattern which can be seen in boom and bust cycles. People who start out wealthy tend to stay wealthy and can in fact grow wealth in many cases because they can work the market coming and going. They understand on a deep and visceral level how the markets work and they are in positions of privilege and they, like many people would do in the same situation, use that to get ahead.

Meanwhile, people who are poor tend to become poorer. Because the limited safety net vanishes entirely. Social services are often among the first things to be cut. After all, we need to pay police officers and firefighters and thus if it’s a choice between keeping the library open and funding salaries for the Sheriff’s department, the Sheriff wins. When people are probably most in need of social services and any kind of available assistance, the system fails them. Unlike the wealthy, they have no reserves. They were against the wall when the crisis started and there is nowhere to go from there. There are no savings, no chances at over jobs, no back up training which can be used to build a new career.

It’s starting to seem like every single week, I read yet another headline about cutting social services in California. Eliminating community health clinics, for example. Cutting programs which provide services to people with AIDS. Keeping the food stamp allowance static even as food prices are on the rise. Limiting access to housing vouchers because there is no more money left in the program. Cutting funding to hospitals which see low income patients because those hospitals are not bringing in any money and consequently there is nothing left. Reducing funding to public education.

The disparities in California are growing increasingly grim. And I’ll tell you something else about them: They are going to endure. Another pattern we see with recessions and depressions is that once people tumble low enough, they tend to stay where they fall. And so do their families and children. We are creating a generation of people in California who are being fed the bitter dregs of the California Dream and know firsthand exactly how hollow it is.

That sort of thing tends to build unrest. When you are living somewhere with gross income disparities, where it is made clear that people like you can never get ahead, it does contribute to resentment. As well it should. What these cuts tell the citizens of California is that the state does not care about its most needy; while we slash funding to social services, state administrators are still being highly paid. The Regents and Chancellors in the UC system are making absurd amounts plus benefits like being provided with cars, housing, and health care. The state wants to expend absurd amounts of money on a monitoring system to trap people who are committing disability fraud even though the cost of such a system would outweigh the potential savings in finding people who are using disability payments fraudulently.

I can’t help but think that some of this allocation of funds stems for a very real fear among the wealthy of this state. Not just the fear that people might actually have a chance to get ahead if our social services system was not so very dysfunctional, but the fear that Californians might be about to get very angry.

War to the mansion, peace to the cottage, right?