“I was a client at a homeless shelter. I have been hungry. I have been afraid. I have worked hard to reach the place I am today and I am not going back to the life I used to lead.” — LaTanya Wolf, St. Mary’s Center

by Paige Hustead

A spirited community forum held at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland on Dec. 10, 2010, brought together members of 20 community organizations determined to speak out against recently proposed cuts to vitally needed parts of the safety net.

Those attending the forum, entitled “Organizing for the California Dream,” rallied to share stories about the impact of the cuts and strategize possible solutions to California’s budget crisis.

Several speakers voiced urgent warnings that impending budget cuts in California will fall with devastating force on people on both ends of the age spectrum. Seniors who rely on In Home Supportive Services and families with young children who need Stage 3 Childcare will face extremely harmful impacts from cutbacks on the state and federal level.

The morning kicked off with a comprehensive presentation from keynote speaker Anne O’Leary, executive director of the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic and Family Security, and former senior policy advisor to Hilary Clinton. Her concise summary of the latest budgetary maneuvers at the federal level provided context for the current crisis in California.

She started by noting the imminent June 2011 end-date of President Obama’s $800-billion stimulus package. Since over six billion dollars of this package went directly towards California schools, the loss of that revenue alone will have a huge impact on the future state budget.

Overall, the stimulus package accounted for five percent of California’s revenue. As a state, we have relied heavily on those funds and must now look towards an alternative solution.

Second, O’Leary pointed out that although 90 percent of the cost of the Healthcare Reform (set to begin in 2014) will be covered by the federal budget, the other 10 percent will fall to California. Even though ten percent might seem minimal when compared to the cost absorbed at the national level, ten percent is a huge amount to a state that is already six billion dollars in deficit.

And it only gets worse: O’Leary noted that California’s budget deficit is expected to exceed $24 billion in the next 1.5 years.

Furthermore, California is expected to pay even more than 10 percent of the cost after five years. By 2019, the federal government will start to taper off its subsidy of healthcare at the state level. California will need to be aware of the impending cost of healthcare reform when formulating the future budget.

Finally, she pointed out that the unemployment level continues to rise and the “Great Recession” continues to drag more and more American citizens into poverty.

O’Leary’s detailed summary of federal-level activity provided context for the budget cuts that are being discussed in California. She urged listeners to be aware of federal politics because “what happens in Washington, D. C., has a direct impact on what happens in California.”

The discussion then moved towards the budget cuts for California specifically, with a focus on two major programs: Stage 3 Childcare and In Home Supportive Services.

In Home Supportive Services (IHSS) is a federally and state-funded program which provides in-home services for disabled adults over the age of 65.

IHSS is considered an alternative to out-of-home care and is designed to enable disabled adults to stay independent as long as possible. The types of services which can be authorized through IHSS include housecleaning, meal preparation, laundry, grocery shopping, and personal care services.

O’Leary urgently told listeners that “cuts to this program would leave individuals who need care in a vulnerable position. These cuts will also cause employed care workers to be forced out of jobs.”

She reminded the crowd that, at present, seniors make up 12 percent of the population, but will comprise about 20 percent in 2030. Who will provide care for these aging adults? How will the already scarce resources be stretched to accommodate this growing population of elderly and disabled people?

LaTanya Wolf from St. Mary’s Center eloquently explained how hard life is for low-income seniors in California. “I was a client at (St. Mary’s Center) homeless shelter,” she said. “I have been hungry. I have been afraid. I have worked hard to reach the place I am today and I am not going back to the life I used to lead.”

Wolf called the audience members to embrace their voices in this fight against budgetary cutbacks. “We have our dignity, our experience, and our knowledge,” she said. “These are the tools we can use to advocate for the younger generations. We must take a stand against these harmful cuts!”

California budget cuts will also dramatically affect humans on the other end of the age spectrum. Children who receive daycare services through Stage 3 Childcare will be negatively affected by huge program cuts.

Stage 3 Childcare provides government assistance to mothers who are working full-time jobs. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger passed a $256-million cut to Stage 3 Childcare. O’Leary asserted, “Cutting childcare subsidies for parents who have successfully transitioned off welfare is a perfect example of a short-sighted plan.”

 

“The stress and impact that this cut will have on parents is probably more than I could describe. These cuts will steal what little hope and spirit that these people have left.” — Yokia Mason

 

The depth of loss that these cuts will inflict was explained by Yokia Mason, a former client of Black Infant Health Program (BIHP). Mason was able to work herself off welfare and is now a case manager and educator in the BIHP office in Oakland. She noted that these cuts “come without warning” and could potentially “shatter years of commitment and diligent effort” of hardworking individuals.

Mason reminded the audience that this is “generational poverty we are dealing with. Some of these parents have only known poverty for their entire lives, and their parents have lived through the same.”

Stage 3 Childcare is a program designed specifically for people who have worked themselves off welfare. For some parents, this is the first time they have successfully achieved a level of stability and self-sufficiency. These men and women are on their way to independence and cuts in their childcare would destroy the life they’ve so delicately composed.

Yokia Mason, eyes blazing, said, “No one really wants to be poor. It’s not a choice. To eliminate this program would be absolutely devastating.”

Without Stage 3 Childcare, struggling mothers and fathers will be forced to choose between taking care of their children and going to work. A reduction in childcare subsidies will lead directly to more unemployed parents.

Another harmful alternative could be that children who are not developmentally ready to care for other children will have no choice but to stay home with younger siblings while parents try to maintain their employment.

Mason powerfully concluded, “Cutting this program would be cruel and unusual. The stress and impact that this cut will have on parents is probably more than I could describe. These cuts will steal what little hope and spirit that these people have left.”

Local community member Jasmine Frazier, a widowed mother of a six-year-old daughter, provided her perspective by describing the potential devastation that this cut could have in her life. Frazier offered insight into the life of someone who is currently receiving benefits from the Stage 3 Childcare program.

She works full time, goes to school at Cal State East Bay in the evenings, and tries her best to spend any free time that she can with her young daughter.

She said, firmly, “I am not asking for sympathy… I just need support. I want to be self-sufficient. I have to be. I need to set a positive example for my daughter.”

She continued to emphasize that her goal is independence, not stagnancy. She anxiously went on, “If this program is cut, I don’t know what I’ll do. Homelessness is not an option. I need to keep my job and I need to stay in school. I only have one semester left and I know that education is our key to a better life.”

Stage 3 Childcare and IHSS are just two of the many programs that will suffer damaging losses from California’s proposed budget cuts.

Representatives from the offices of State Sen. Ellen Corbett and Assemblymembers Nancy Skinner and Sandre Swanson were present to offer encouragement and a political perspective. Maha Ibrahim from Skinner’s office was adamant that Schwarzenegger “made a statement of values about what he sees as important and real. It is my hope that Governor-Elect Jerry Brown will focus on the reality and long-term effect of today’s budget choices.”

Reggie Lyle, representative from Assemblymember Swanson’s office, infused the discussion with a realistic optimism by exclaiming: “This is an exciting time! We have an opportunity to make structural changes that will reflect the priorities of our communities.”

He also said, “The key is for us to not weary of the struggle. Apathy is a strategy of the opponent; if we allow ourselves to be demoralized, they win. We have got to keep fighting, appearing, and advocating. We must continue to show up and stand our ground even without knowing exactly when the light will shine through.”

California needs a plan that supports the hard work and diligence of its working-class citizens. We need a budget that acknowledges the reality of today’s workers who must balance full-time employment and raising a family on limited funds. Our economy would be better off if these families could maintain their self-sufficiency instead of being robbed of the meager support they have in place.

At such a dire time, California must choose wisely when deciding which programs to slash. Realistically, budget cuts must occur. However, California must take into account that cuts to safety net programs will have long-lasting and far-reaching effects.

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