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by Terry Messman
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n July 1, a high-spirited group of protesters arrived at the Alameda County Social Services building in Oakland to protest damaging cuts to the safety net that began taking effect that very day. A broad coalition of childcare agencies, senior organizations, homeless advocates, and healthcare groups denounced what they said were inhumane and destructive cuts to medical care, education, disability services and family welfare benefits.
The far-reaching cutbacks in SSI benefits, CalWORKs family benefits, senior health centers, and Medi-Cal were approved by the California state legislature in March and took effect on July 1, the same day as the Oakland protest.
A protest rally in front of the Oakland welfare offices might typically include a condemnation of the county welfare officials inside the building, but this was a protest with a significant difference.
In the middle of the rally, Luan Huynh, a supervising attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center and one of the protest’s key organizers, suddenly made an unexpected announcement. Huynh introduced Laurie Jones, the new director of the Alameda County Social Services Agency, saying, “she wanted to be here today because I think she supports us!”
That turned out to be exactly right. Laurie Jones spoke powerfully in favor of the protest, eliciting enthusiastic cheers from more than 100 demonstrators who had been chanting loudly outside her offices.
Jones told the rally, “I wanted to make sure that you were aware that Social Services is completely on board and supportive of the advocates in the community. These cuts hurt our families, they hurt our communities, they hurt our children, they hurt our most needy.”
Then Jones pledged she would work with the demonstrators to do her utmost to defend the desperately needed social services that had just undergone a slash-and-burn assault from the state legislature.
“We are committed to working with the advocates,” Jones said. “We are committed to working with our community-based organizations to find ways that we can find the resources necessary to keep services in place.”
Jones concluded with compelling words of commitment: “These cuts are horrible, and we realize it. I’m glad you guys are here, and this is a really great, strong show of support. You just need to know that Social Services is also behind you as well!”
BOSS Executive Director boona cheema told Street Spirit that Jones has deep roots in the homeless advocacy community, noting that Jones had worked as an employment counselor for BOSS 25 years ago. Cheema said that with Jones as the new director, Alameda County Social Services and the Board of Supervisors are working closely with advocacy groups under the umbrella of Alameda County’s Multi-Agency Task Force.
Jones wasn’t the only high-ranking Social Services official to make common cause with the demonstrators. Dan Kaplan, the finance director of the Social Services Agency, also spoke in support of the protesters’ goals.
“We’re in a very, very rough situation here in California,” Kaplan said. “We have to keep organizing and keep pushing for reform around our values as they’re reflected in this budget. We don’t want a minority to be able to stop us from providing the services we need.”
Kaplan was referring to the minority of Republican legislators who had blocked Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempt to save some social services from the chopping block. This GOP minority had prevented the efforts of a majority of state legislators to extend the sales tax at its current rate of 8.25 percent. Such an extension would have preserved many services, but GOP intransigence sealed the fate of the safety net.
Kaplan explained what that means to the poor who receive aid from CalWORKs, the state assistance program for low-income families that has suffered an estimated $3.5 billion in spending cuts since 2008.
“We’re seeing an eight percent cut in CalWORKs grants and people are timed off after 48 months, instead of 60 months,” Kaplan said. “We’re seeing reductions in employment services. We’re seeing reductions in childcare for CalWORKs clients.”
All these cuts makes the plight of poor families “much, much worse,” he said. Kaplan told the rally that poor people are also facing cuts in health care, education and the In Home Support Services program for the disabled and elderly.
“A minority in the legislature held up” Gov. Brown’s attempt to increase revenue and preserve services by extending the sales tax, Kaplan said. “So all in all, we’re making our community poorer because we cannot bear to extend taxes.”
He concluded by urging the protesters to keep standing up for the rights of the poorest people in their community.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” Kaplan said. “We have to be saying over and over, to everyone who will listen, that this level of cutbacks is not acceptable and has to be restored. We have to push hard against the notion that a minority can put off tax extensions that a majority wants to put in place.”
BOSS Director boona cheema also talked about staying committed for the long haul. “This is my 40th year of trying to stand up with people who have to live in poverty and who have challenges we cannot even believe,” she said. “What they have most of all is courage and I want that courage celebrated today.”
She added, “We cannot stop organizing. We must organize. Every day we’ve got to organize – not just the providers, not just the folks who are political. But any person who is receiving any kind of aid must organize, and must speak out about the horrors that they’re living with.”
A poem by BOSS community organizer Chaka-Khan Gordon, declared, “Stand with us as we create a world in which all of us live with dignity and abundance. By the power of love and unity, we begin!”
Luan Huynh supervises law students who help welfare recipients at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). She said, “The GOP’s refusal to allow tax extensions on the ballot is a slap in the face to needy families, who have been forced to bear the brunt of the budget deficit.”
In an interview with Street Spirit, Huynh warned of the impact of the cuts: “It’s going to hit them and it’s going to be really serious because the grants that our clients get now are so small that it ends up being a significant portion of their income that is cut. The grants are already so small. The average for most families on CalWORKs was $504 per month, before the cuts. All of that has gone down on July 1 by eight percent.”
Politicians were able to justify such severe cuts because “they’re only looking at it in terms of numbers and how it balances out,” Huynh said. But as she works directly with poor people at EBCLC, she witnesses the human effects of the cuts.
“We’re already seeing clients who are homeless,” Huynh said, “and we see people who are not yet homeless but whose utilities have been shut off. When you encounter these individuals on a daily basis, you understand that these cuts are not just numbers. You’re going to have people sitting in front of you with children who won’t be able to go to school because now they’re in shelters that are far away from the school they’re attending. Or their parents have no place to prepare their meals.
“You can see the spiraling effects of all of that and I anticipate with these cuts, we’ll see even more poverty.”
Huynh said the Oakland protest was needed because legislators often make cuts without understanding the real damage they cause to entire families and communities.
She said, “Sometimes legislators make these decisions without understanding the hurt they cause, or without understanding that if they make these cuts, families will be homeless or children won’t go to school.
“So there is a stabilizing impact that CalWORKs has on families that is really important. Part of that is being taken away by these cuts. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have to live off of so little.”
When an entire family must live on an average of only $504 per month, and then that small income is suddenly cut to $464 a month – as it was cut for thousands of the poorest families in the state on July 1 – it is much more than the loss of a few dollars. It can be the critical shortfall that causes a family to lose their housing.
Huynh said, “One of the important functions of public benefits is to prevent homelessness. When a family can’t pay for housing, they become homeless and they’re more likely to end up in emergency rooms in hospitals. For families who end up living in cars when the shelters are full, they’re more subject to violence out in the street. And their children can’t get continuity in their education and they suffer in moving from one school to the next.”
That is very nearly a precise description of the fate that befell Ashley Proctor, a young mother with a four-year-old son. Proctor spoke out at the rally as an immediate victim of the budget cuts because she was timed off CalWORKs benefits on the day of the protest, July 1.
State legislators shortened the lifetime limit on receiving CalWORKs from 60 months to 48 months. Once you have received four years of benefits, you are “timed off” CalWORKs for the rest of your life. That is what happened to Proctor and her young son as of July 1.
She will lose all funding for school and will no longer be able to be employed in the CalWORKs work-study program, gravely jeopardizing her ability to provide for herself and her young son.
“As of today, I will be cut off from CalWORKs, and that cutoff will affect me tremendously, because I’m already halfway homeless,” Proctor said. “So when they cut me off now, then I have no way to provide for my son.
“This affects everything I do. I cannot go to school. I cannot feed my son. So for them to take me off, they’re taking my son off. You cannot clothe a child and give a child what he needs for just $300 a month. There is no time limit on poverty, but they’re gonna time me out.”
On the same day that thousands of CalWORKs recipients suffered cutbacks, thousands more disabled and elderly recipients faced major reductions in their SSI (Supplemental Security Income).
David Fobroy, a member of St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, spoke out against SSI cutbacks because he is disabled and SSI is the only income he receives.
For the past three years, state officials refused to make any cost-of-living increases to SSI despite the rising cost of living, rent and food. To make matters worse, SSI was reduced on July 1 to only $830 a month – less than the federal poverty level.
“SSI is the only income I receive and it is all I have to survive,” said Fobroy. “The cost of living continues to skyrocket and yet we are expected to get by with less and less.”
Medi-Cal was also cut in major ways. For the first time, the poor will be charged copayments for every doctor visit, and still larger copayments for emergency room visits and short hospital stays. The legislature also imposed a cap of only seven doctor visits per year.
Ethel Long-Scott, director of the Women’s Economic Agenda Project, said, “These god-awful cuts in Medi-Cal! What kind of thief is going to force the sickest, the most vulnerable population and make them pay more for health care and pay the doctors even less so it’s harder to find doctors who will take people on Medi-Cal? We are one nation. We need one damn health care plan. The same one that the Congressmen got, all of us need.”
Countless adults on Medi-Cal don’t get dental, vision, podiatry and other needed medical care, according to Luan Huynh. “Starting two years ago, I started seeing clients in our office with rotted teeth. They say, ‘I can’t get a job because my teeth are rotting and no one wants to hire me.’
“But the only place I can send them is to Highland Hospital when their teeth are rotting so badly it is impacting their gums, and then as an emergency service, Highland will pull out their teeth.”
LaTanya Wolf, a senior advocate at St. Mary’s Center, is the mother of three and the grandmother of seven. She told the rally, “I’m here because I know what it’s like to be hungry. When I became homeless and without a job, if it wasn’t for St. Mary’s Center, I’d be dead.”
She gave the gathering an inspiring call to action – a blueprint for social change.
Wolf said, “I’m going to keep on speaking out against hunger and for housing and medical care and everything else that’s been stripped from us, along with our dignity. I’m going to fight until I can’t speak any more. Why can’t we tax the corporations? They’re not paying their taxes. They’re taking everything from us until there’s no more left to take. Let’s take something from them and make them pay their way.”
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