California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, amidst the worst economic depression in 70 years, demands that the state legislature dismantle what he calls the state’s “luxury model” social programs. To justify his budget cutting zeal he has repeatedly sounded the alarm that we’re in the midst of an economic catastrophe. But nothing will shake his religious belief, even with all the evidence of failure around him, that the private sector can do no wrong. He claims to understand that Californians are experiencing record home foreclosures, and an unemployment rate nearing 12% with the number of laid-off people rising each day. But he also believes, contrary to common sense and basic human decency, that it’s a perfect time to shred the social safety net.
Regarding the CalWORKS system of relief to the ever-growing number of poverty-stricken Californians, Schwarzenegger argues for changes that will goad these women, children, disabled, and elderly people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. “What we’re doing now with those reforms we’re trying to implement so that people have to go…through interviews, go and call their social workers every month, go and have twice a year interviews and talk about the progress and what did they do in order to go out and get a job,” Schwarzenegger said. “I think ultimately I think that’s what people want. They want to participate, they want to make money, they want to provide for their families — they don’t want to be stuck at home with just, you know, a little amount of money that they get from government, so but we have to motivate the people — and California’s done a lousy job in motivating people.”
To justify his calls for gutting the In-Home Supportive Services (IHHS) program, Schwarzenegger claimed, but couldn’t back up, that there was a “25%” fraud rate. The IHHS program provides small amounts of aid to low-income elderly and disabled people so they can stay in their homes instead of being shipped off to even more costly convalescent hospitals. The 440,000 people who depend on IHHS are to Schwarzenegger, like state workers, just pawns in his budget standoff with the Legislature. The governor’s office has used the 25 percent figure in official documents leading Schwarzenegger to call for finger-printing people and other authoritarian fixes supposedly to weed out the alleged fraud. The Sacramento Bee recently quoted Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association, who said: “We don’t know anyone who thinks there is a 25% fraud rate in this program. It’s hard to have a rational discussion on this in an environment so flush with demagoguery.” Schwarzenegger scrambled to find data to back up his claim but came up empty. His office issued a pathetic press release saying that after having a few conversations with district attorneys they concluded that fraud “could range up to 25%.” The governor’s spokesman all but admitted they were lying.
What Schwarzenegger seems not to understand is that there are real human beings on the other end of his budget axe. One an email I received recently illustrates this point: “I am a disabled man who is confined to my home. I face the imminent cutoff of my In Home Supportive Services and much of my Medi-Cal coverage for different types of services. It hasn’t all hit the fan completely as yet, but it will. I don’t know what I will do when it does. Moving to a convalescent home is very frightening to me and I may have to if I am unable to care for my needs in the apartment where I am able to live independently at the moment due to the IHSS help I receive.”
Schwarzenegger’s heartlessness towards the state’s most vulnerable citizens in a time of economic collapse renders absurd the Republicans’ attempts in recent years to paint their party as “kinder and gentler” or “compassionate.” Schwarzenegger, in his lame duck period, is showing us the true colors of the modern GOP. Come election time, when Republican candidates traipse around the districts pretending to care about working people and education, I hope voters remember this gleeful Republican assault on the poor and public sector workers.
Schwarzenegger doesn’t get the human costs of his actions. He seems to enjoy the attention he’s getting as well as playing on right-wing “populist” anger. He’s satisfying his Tea Bagger constituency by beating up on Californians who happen to be poor or work in the public sector. He denounces them as “special interests,” while serving the “very special interests” of the richest and most powerful corporations and industry trade groups in the state. I guess we can call it “conservatism without the compassion.”
Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He’s the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).
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