June 14, 2009 – At noon on Sunday mornings the church I attend in downtown Oakland usually distributes about 100 bags of food. Those who line up to receive these bags are usually elderly residents and a few homeless men who live in the neighborhood. Last Sunday as I looked at the line forming, it was a starkly different group of people—many more single young men in their 20s and 30s and mothers with their young children. In the end, we packed and distributed 223 bags of food.
This very same week our Governor announced his proposed elimination of most major supports for public assistance to our state’s poor and disabled residents. He proposed that we eliminate CalWORKS, the program that provides very limited cash support (a maximum of $652 per month for a family of three) to low and no income families with children. This would leave 1.3 million Californians with no cash support, most of whom are single mothers with significant barriers to employment—interpersonal violence, access to affordable childcare or disabilities—in an economy where it is very difficult for unemployed people with strong skills to find jobs.
The Governor also proposed the elimination of Healthy Families, a program that provides health coverage to low income children, and two programs created by Governor Wilson: the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI) and the California Food Assistance Program.
CAPI provides core assistance to about 10,500 mostly elderly Asian women, many of whom immigrated here after the conflicts in Southeast Asia. These are the women we see on Sundays at the food pantry because they cannot live on their current income. Women who, despite their advanced age, stand in line for 2-3 hours leaning on their walkers in order to get a bag of food that contains one can of vegetables, one can of fruit, one can of soup, a small can of tuna or chicken, cereal, milk, a grain or beans and on a good day a few pieces of fresh produce. At the end of this wait, they struggle to walk home with food that will last a day or two.
If the California Food Assistance Program (state funded Food Stamps for legal immigrants) were eliminated, 23,700 people would lose their food assistance and $30 million would be cut from the economy. That’s because these programs are mostly funded by federal dollars. The portion of state funding varies from 10% to 33% of the total expenditure. Ending these programs not only leaves federal dollars on the table but further decimates city and county budgets and creates greater need for nonprofit and faith-based social service programs—programs that are already under-funded and over-extended.
The economic concerns are the least important. How we as a state treat “the least of these” matters the most. As the Governor was announcing his severe cuts he talked about California standing on the edge of a cliff with a gun to its head. The Governor is standing on the edge of this cliff and throwing over the edge poor women, poor children, the disabled, the elderly and the mentally ill. Is this the California we want?
There are solutions. These solutions, however, demand an increase in State revenues, skillful budget cutting that protects those least able to protect themselves and a legislature that can move from being positional to being true problem solvers.
We must communicate to our elected officials that we would be receptive to thoughtful tax increases and that we expect them to stop pointing fingers and digging in their heels. We elected them to be problem solvers, and if there was ever a time when we needed cooperative and creative problem solving it is now.