California’s Economy is Coming Back. But is our Safety Net?

If you’ve got the calendar marked for President Obama’s State of the Union address coming up on 2/12, I have a question for you: when was the last time you listened to a “State of the State” address?  I’m guessing it’s been a while.  These speeches tend to be far more specific, and far more relevant to our daily lives, than anything said in Washington.  But even news junkies like myself tend to ignore them, and my favorite sources of local news (public radio and Pacifica) never seem to advertise them in advance or replay them in the evening.

With this in mind, I was excited and chagrined in equal parts when I happened to turn on the radio last week and catch Gov. Jerry Brown delivering his California-sized pep talk.  I realized the last State of the State I could remember was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in 2009.  It was not a pep talk.  The part I remember best was something along the lines of, “We have no more money to spend.  Our pockets are empty.  The bank is closed.”  (Why the imprecise quote?  Because, even in our digital world, it’s hard to find a transcript or recording of past States of the State.)

Gov. Schwarzenegger wasn’t just trying to make me regret my relocation to the Golden State a few weeks prior.  He was paving the way for massive cuts in state spending, including for vital social services.  He followed up that speech with big cuts in 2010, and did it again in 2011.  Democratic governor Jerry Brown did the same in 2012. 

I don’t want to make your eyes glaze over, so I won’t rattle off the enormous amounts of money cut or the long list of agencies that suffered the cutting.  But a few examples get the point across:

These are budget cuts that literally threaten people’s lives.  So, naturally, many of us were hoping that we’d start reversing them once the state’s economy rebounded and we had more money to spend.  (And it’s not like we don’t need these services anymore: our unemployment rate is still nearly double what it was in 2008, before the crash.)

The good news? There were no rhetorical empty pockets to be found in Gov. Brown’s 2013 State of the State.  In light of the relatively good economic news we’ve heard in the last year, he scoffed at the pessimists and declared California to be “on the move”—a transportation metaphor he illustrated by chanting the refrain from The Little Engine That Could: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…”

The bad news?  Brown has no intention of restoring the cuts to social services.  “It would be cruel,” he said, “to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them back when the funding disappears.  This isn’t progress.  It isn’t even progressive; it’s an illusion.”  Well, yes, restoring social services just to cut them again would be cruel.  Nobody’s asking for that.  So what would real progress look like?

Jerry Brown gets it about investing in the future.  He gave a frank warning about the danger of climate change and called for action today to stave off calamity to come.  He rightly praised the legislature for paying into energy efficiency measures decades ago that are saving us billions now, and he ended the speech with a bold defense of massive train, bridge, and tunnel projects that will pay off down the road.  He made a similar case for (partially) restoring the state’s education budget at both the K-12 and higher ed levels: “Nothing is more determinative of our future than how we teach our children.  If we fail at this, we will sow growing social chaos and inequality that no law can rectify.”

What he’s missing is that California’s safety net, like our schools and infrastructure, will not be fine if we neglect it.  It will not magically pull itself out of the chasm and rebuild on its own, any more than a collapsed bridge would.  If we can’t protect a child from abuse, or guarantee her mother decent healthcare, or give her grandfather a safe and dignified place to spend the day, then the best school in the world can’t promise her a good future.  The best roads and train lines can’t remove the threat of social chaos when a man who’s laid off has no certainty that his family won’t go hungry.

Our budget problems are complicated, but there are some simple truths hiding in that tangled mess.  Here’s one: we need to take in more money in taxes and spend it on social services.  And another: we’re going to be stuck in one budget crisis or another until we repeal Prop 13 and make landowners pay their fair share.  That’s a topic I intend to cover in more detail another time.  But for now, I have a question for Jerry Brown:

Can you, an independent leader with an all-time-high favorability rating and a penchant for dishing out tough love, tell Californians the truth about what it will take to fund a safety net we can be proud of?  I think you can, I think you can, I think you can…