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California: America’s first failed state? Deep cuts push Californians to edge


Photo by Getty Images

California is the world’s eighth-largest economy, but its unemployment rate is over 12 percent. Millions of people lost their homes when the housing bubble burst. Millions more have been thrust into poverty by the recession.

On Sunday mornings at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in the rough-edged Tenderloin district of San Francisco, the sanctuary is always rocking to old-school gospel music.

“It's so good to come together,” Pastor Cecil Williams declares. His is a diverse congregation - white and African American, gay and straight, young and elderly.

For four decades, Pastor Williams has been an outspoken advocate for the city’s poor and marginalized. On one bright October Sunday recently, he preached a sermon on compassion and the need for social justice.

“You affirm who you are when you stand up for others in need,” Williams told his flock. “And you can say, we are going to change this old world to a new world.”

Hard times

But it is a harsh new world in California these days. A state once synonymous with opportunity and prosperity, sunshine and surf, Hollywood and Disneyland, has fallen on bitterly hard times.

The evidence is no further away than the church basement, where free meals are prepared for homeless and hungry people like Robert Shirley. He’s been homeless - on and off - for months, he says. 

“California was the land of opportunity. You could make it out here,” Shirley says. “Hey, I’m sorry but California is not that way anymore.”

The number of meals served here has jumped 21 per cent since last year. Williams says the free kitchen’s clientele has changed drastically.

“They were people who were carrying briefcases, people who were dressed in suits, people who were dressed up very nicely and people who had been a part of the middle class,” he says. “And we were seeing them come through the lines. And that of course was shocking.”

Sinking state

California is the world’s eighth-largest economy, but its unemployment rate is over 12 percent — the highest in 70 years. Millions of people lost their homes when the housing bubble burst. Millions more have been thrust into poverty by the recession.

In July, the state legislature haggled for weeks over how to close a $26 billion budget gap. Instead of increasing taxes of corporations or the wealthy, the budget deal that emerged to be signed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger ordered deep spending cuts, laying off tens of thousands of state workers.

Reduced funding for education, coupled with big tuition increases, sparked a student and faculty strike at California’s public universities. Programs for ex-prison inmates and parolees have been slashed. And the social safety net of healthcare and services for the poor, children and elderly - the least powerful and least vocal members of society - has been systematically shredded.

“The people that are going to be affected first and foremost will be the poor, those who are in great need,” Williams says sadly. “They are not considered to be human beings.”

Abandoning the poor

In Pleasant Hill, a suburb outside of San Francisco, I met a remarkable young woman names Amy Fedeli. Only 24 years old, she has deferred her dream of college and a career in nursing to support her 75-year-old grandmother Margaret and 7-year-old niece Emilia. She’s keeping faith with her loved ones in a state that is systematically abandoning its poorest and least powerful people.

Margaret, who suffers from a neurological disorder and mild dementia, is too frail to be left home alone while Amy goes to her job at a medical records company. So she attends a state-funded adult day care program, where she gets physical and occupational therapy, health checkups, and a chance to interact with other people and keep her mental faculties sharp.

But as part of the effort to pare down the budget deficit, California has cut many programs for the elderly poor. New rules would limit seniors to three days a week in adult day care. That’s a big problem for the Fedeli family. Without the daily care she gets at the senior center, Amy says, Margaret might not survive for long.

“She would probably end up in a nursing home,” Amy says. “She would probably pass. She would probably die, God forbid.”  To care for Margaret, Amy would have to quit her job, leaving the little family without any income. Why has she accepted so much responsibility at such a young age? “It's family, that’s all I can say,” Amy says. ”Your family, you stick with them — that’s all.”

A legal challenge has temporarily halted some of the cuts to elderly care. But Governor Schwartzenegger is trying to overturn the court ruling and re-institute the cuts.

'Obscene' politics

Donna Calame, who runs a state program that provides in-home care for seniors, told me the attitude of Schwartzenegger and the legislature makes her livid. “For me, its really obscene,” she said in an interview. “We are a rich state. I think it’s because of the wealth in California that, to me, makes the choices that have been made this year so morally reprehensible.”
Critics say California’s politics are so deadlocked, its government so dysfunctional, it may become United States’ first failed state. The state legislature is hamstrung by a law requiring a two-thirds majority vote to raise taxes and pass a budget. That makes compromise practically impossible.

 I asked political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California what’s wrong with California.

“What is the matter with California is, that we have become politically so polarized that we can’t agree on something that will make this state work,” Bebitch Jeffe laments. “Somewhere, somehow, the public good, as a concept of governance, has disappeared in this state.”

The failure of California’s government has bred profound cynicism among its people. Back at the soup kitchen, Robert Shirley has some blunt advice for the people in charge of the Golden State.

 “If our politicians don’t get their heads out of their asses, this state is going to be — let’s put it this way: some of those third-world countries are going to look a lot better than California.”

Deep cuts push Californians to edge
By Rob Reynolds in Fresno, California

The recession has hit California hard, with unemployment at 12.7 per cent [GALLO/GETTY]

They call it Tortilla Flats - a haphazard cluster of tents and tarps sprawling across a sidewalk and a vacant lot smack in the middle of Fresno, a city of 500,000 in California's Central valley.

The tent city, reminiscent of the Depression-era "Hoovervilles" depicted by author John Steinbeck in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, is home to a shifting population of about 70 homeless people.

That's where I met a couple named Kerry and John. They asked me not to use their last names. They live in a cramped two-person tent strewn with blankets and clothes. Both are native to the Valley.
And both are now homeless for the first time in their lives.

Kerry was a preschool teacher until a year ago, when her world caved in. "I got sick," she told me. "Ulcerative colitis. Ended up losing my job, and ended up here. Ran out of health insurance and money and this is what happened."
John, a shy young man who used to work as a barber, told a rambling story about bad breaks, crooked employers and jobs that didn’t pan out. Now he passes the time playing with two pigeons he rescued and tamed as pets.

"Gets to the point where time does not mean much anymore," he said.

"Time is just time. We’re just waiting for the big break- a chance to rebuild our lives."  

Homeless camps like this one have formed in several places around California.
People here have formed a kind of community, complete with a "town council" of elders who meet nightly.

Many of those living in the camps are chronically homeless men with mental issues or drug and alcohol problems. But many others are former members of the working or middle classes who have fallen off the economic ladder.

"It's a real shock when you come down here," Kerry said.

"You don't know whether people will befriend you or not. People have, luckily. But there are a lot of dangers out here - everywhere you look. Especially at night."

Concentrated poverty

Mark Arax, a third-generation resident who has written extensively about the Central valley, took me on a driving tour of the fields around Fresno.

Vineyards heavy with table grapes and raisins stretched across the horizon, along with vast orchards of almond, pistachio and fig trees. 

"We're standing in the richest farm belt in the world," Arax said, "And yet the poverty here is overwhelming."

"Fresno has the most concentrated poverty of any city in the country. New Orleans is second. So there is a paradox to this place - this bounty side by side, cheek by jowl with the poverty."

Health problems

Another paradox: In the fast-food- and car-dominated culture of the valley, the biggest health problem for the poor is not hunger, but obesity.

California crisis

 Video: Elderly hit hard by healthcare cuts
 Video: America's Golden State falls on hard times

Source: Genoveva Islas-

Hooker runs the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program. She walked with me along a major thoroughfare in town called Kings' Canyon. Heavy traffic zipped past kilometre after kilometre of McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut outlets.

"We like to talk about it as an obesogenic environment, an environment that is really promoting obesity," Islas-Hooker said.
Fatty, salty, and sugary fast food is actually cheaper for poor people to feed their families with than healthy vegetables or grains.

Government food support programs emphasise filling, calorie-heavy foods like cheese, milk and bread. And the valley's sprawl, lack of sidewalks and paucity of playgrounds and parks discourages exercise.

Furthemore, high crime and gang activity lead many fearful parents to keep their children at home, parked in front of the TV with a litre of sugary soda.

Obesity-linked diseases are sky-rocketing. Islas-Hooker says doctors now see kids in their teens with type-two diabetes, an illness normally found in people in their forties and fifties.

"We are talking about heart disease, certain types of cancers that are strongly associated with obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, all with direct links to obesity," she said.

"They're killers. People are dying."

Health care slashed

Now, because of a huge budget shortfall, California has slashed health care programmes for the poor. There have been major cuts to a state insurance programme and to the Healthy Families programme, which is geared to the working poor.
Supplemental assistance for the blind and disabled and day care centres for Alzheimer's Disease patients have also been eliminated.
In Merced, north of Fresno, I met Mike Sullivan, CEO of the Golden Valley Health non-profit company, which operates 33 low cost clinics for uninsured and impoverished patients.

Many of Golden Valley’s clients are migrant farm workers or undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

Describing the cuts approved by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sullivan said: "He cut medical benefits, he eliminated directly programs like the farmworkers'
programme and another programme in California for poor uninsured Californians.

"That was devastating to Golden valley and all of the safety net health care providers in the state."

Government 'abandonment'

Sullivan said he is troubled by the attitude of the state government toward the people affected by the programmes that have been cut. There was little debate or consideration of the effects the cuts would have on people’s lives, he said.

When I suggested that the word "abandonment" came to mind, Sullivan replied: "Yeah, that's a good way to frame it, I think." 
Arax traces the roots of California’s current crisis back to a time over thirty years ago, when voters in a statewide referendum shackled the government's ability to raise property taxes.

"A state as intricate and vast as this cannot be run without taxes," he said.

"The government needs the ability to tax. And when we lost those property taxes we lost the great base that had been used to build the dams, the highways and the great UC (University of California) educational system.

"We are seeing tougher times here than we have seen in a long time - 3 or 4 generations. The ability to fix it - the ability of government to fix it - is getting tougher and tougher. We are broken in a very profound way."

Back in Tortilla Flats, the sun is about to set. Night is the worst time, John and Kerry told me, when the rats come out and human predators lurk.

John and Kerry lit a fire in a battered barbecue grill, warming their hands over the flames. Darkness is covering the Central valley - and all of California.

Sources: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/americas/2009/10/20091019205530422375.html    & http://blogs.aljazeera.net/americas/2009/10/17/california-america%E2%80%99s-first-failed-state

Original articles published on October 18 and 21, 2009

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