ON THE LINE: Governor Jerry Brown's plan to eliminate CalWorks would… (Los Angeles Times )
A photo of a man building a house may look exactly like a picture of him making repairs or one of him taking the place apart brick by brick, so it can be hard to tell whether a snapshot shows the beginning, the middle or the end of a major project. And so it is with this year's state budget: Are we watching California being put back together or witnessing its demolition?
A generation of Californians has lived through several spasms of financial restructuring, some of which hit us from outside, some of which we created ourselves. Embarrassing surpluses in 1978, for instance, led to a property tax freeze; demographic shifts in the 1980s helped drive up need while driving down spending; the end of the Cold War brought the dismantling of industry; the wispy Web-based economy in the 1990s brought the illusion of wealth; the near elimination of vehicle fees in 2003 de-funded local government; state bailouts disguised the problem but not the pain. Meanwhile Californians who were once experts at investing in the future now can't seem to decide whether to bank on tomorrow or withdraw their funds and close the account.
Coming and going through the decades has been the man with the hammer and the plans, Jerry Brown. But is he the builder, the maintenance guy or the wrecking crew?
From the perspective of the thousands of people who rely on state aid to get them through the current crisis, Brown sometimes looks like his predecessor, the Terminator. The governor this year proposed deep cuts and a sweeping restructuring of the state's welfare system. Democrats in the Legislature didn't go for it, so Brown instead made cuts with his veto pen.
The majority of people on the state's welfare rolls are children, and most of the aid they get is administered locally, by counties. The money keeps them in school, keeps them fed and keeps them out of more expensive programs — and it buys their mothers some time to get trained in basic job skills and get into the workforce. Just mothers? Pretty much. Able-bodied adults who are on the financial ropes and have no children to care for might apply to their counties for general relief, but otherwise they simply don't get cash giveaways in California.
In making further line-item budget cuts last week, Brown said he was making tough choices to get the state back on track. Real cuts are needed to close the state's multibillion-dollar shortfall. But cutting welfare programs is counterproductive. For example, eliminating 14,000 children from a state child-care program improves California's immediate fiscal health, but it represents 14,000 parents who may have to leave work to stay at home with their kids, or as many kids who will be left on their own during the day without parental guidance. We need the savings, but it sure feels like we're using them to tear the house down.