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Are We in America? Or Are We in a Jungle Where Only the Fittest Survive?

Schwarzenegger hugs Team Canada Special Olympics gymnast Emily Boycott [Reuters

Schwarzenegger hugs Team Canada Special Olympics gymnast Emily Boycott [Reuters

This week, by a majority vote, the California Legislature voted to raise some very modest revenues that no one but the most rabid hater of his fellow man could object to. A $1.50 on a bottle of alcohol. $15 added to a vehicle license fee. Revenues that would make it possible for the most vulnerable among us to have a measure of decency and dignity to their lives.

To assist children with special needs, the Legislature created regional centers from the testimony of parents in anguish who wanted to ensure that their disabled children could live in dignity after they, their parents have passed on. The Regional Center program teaches special needs children to care for themselves, intervenes in autism so the children have a chance to learn as time goes on. That’s how we do things in America.

Are we really going to take this and other programs apart piece by piece until special needs children take their place next to the mentally ill sleeping in their own filth in the streets of Los Angeles. Are we in a jungle?

Governor Swartzenegger said he would veto these modest revenues because we have to balance our budget. We are being told a lie about our budget. A lie that is born in the law of the jungle. A law that says if one of us stumbles, let them fall behind; there will be more for the rest of us.

We are being told a lie. The Governor said he would not accept even these modest revenues because our budget is too large. That is not the reason why were in financial trouble today. We’re in financial trouble today because a housing bubble burst and because predatory lenders went after unsophisticated people and gave them mortgages they couldn’t afford. Then those predatory lenders, who were making money hand over fist taking people’s down payments sold those junk mortgages and infected the monetary fund so that other people’s pensions shrunk down to nothing so that just as they were ready to retire they are now madly scrambling for jobs. We have been hit by a financial earthquake and the only way we can decently get through it is for all of us to make a shared sacrifice. The most vulnerable among us are not part of a fat budget to cut.

This budget is not bloated because senior citizens are living on too much money: $860 a month and later this year $830 a month. The budget is not bloated because home care workers who do backbreaking work night and day helping people get to the bathroom and in and out of bed are making $9 an hour. This budget is not bloated because kids going to state and junior colleges are spending too much to make something of their lives. This budget is not bloated because the former welfare mother, who sleeps three in a bed, gets a job as a janitor at the LA Unified School District and needs $1,000 a month for her childcare so she can make a decent life for their family.

For some absolutely insane reason this Governor and the Republican members of the Legislature are saying this financial catastrophe must be shouldered only by an 83-year-old senior citizen trying to live on $860 a month, with her attendant making barely more than the minimum wage, or children living in poverty who will have their health care taken away. This state that is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world, and Governor Schwarzenegger will not accept a budget that has even the tiniest shared sacrifice from these people who will not be in dire straits by modest revenue changes. What is Countrywide Mortgage being asked to contribute in this financial crisis? What is being asked of the Bank of America in this shared sacrifice and other institutions that made hundreds of thousands of dollars a week selling junk mortgages and making our tax base toxic and insolvent?

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I love our multicultural community, and I love that we all come from different countries, but this Governor is acting in a way that makes me ask: do you know what kind of country America is? America is a country where we take care of each other and everyone gets a chance to make a decent life for themselves. When Warren Buffett advised this Governor that our property taxes are too low and that Bush’s tax cuts to the wealthy caused his receptionist to pay 30 times the taxes he was paying and this is not the America he remembered. The only action this Governor took on that advice was to isolate Buffet.

My colleague was a partner in a prestigious law firm. He wrote to this governor when financial catastrophe hit and said “people like me can make a contribution during this crisis.” He wrote that letter because that’s what decent people do. I live on a $2,000 a month Social Security check but I would gladly pay $15 or much more in my vehicle license fee to know that my brothers and sisters were not sleeping under bridges. That’s how most people feel, but this governor and a handful of Republican legislators will not allow the decency of California citizens to be reflected in their votes.

The way the Governor is proposing to run California would make it so the richest people in the world step over seniors and people with disabilities and special needs children and single mothers on their way to a valet, to pick up their car at a fancy restaurant. We have all learned to close our eyes too much as we see the mentally ill line on the streets like so much garbage. Are we in a jungle or are we in America ?

Governor Schwarzenegger, you seem like a nice man but you are behaving like an animal, and I’m sorry to say it but you and the First Lady should never be permitted to ever attend the Special Olympics again until you stop acting like the most potent enemy special needs children ever had. For the sake of all our souls stop this madness! We are not in a jungle where only the fittest survive. We are in America , a place where working-class children can go to college and improve their lives. We are in America , the country that enacted Social Security and Medicare and takes care of our seniors and people with disabilities.

20 years ago Lillibeth and I marched with our brother on a stretcher who was dying of bedsores and pneumonia because the state would not buy him a wheelchair. A lady watching us march from City Hall to the governor’s office with our friend on a gurney said if he can’t get a wheelchair, why am I paying taxes? That woman asked a very good question, and by asking the question she obviously knew the answer. We pay taxes when we are young and hearty so that services will be there for us when we are not. Jesus said we will be judged by how we treat the least among us. Well, Governor Schwarzenegger and Republicans who voted not to consider the most modest of revenues so that we all as a community could pull together and weather the storm, how do you think Jesus would look at your actions today?

Immigrants are greeted by the Statue of Liberty when they enter this country with the promise that people are welcome here and that they will be treated in dignity. This must not become a country where the wealthy step over mentally ill people and special needs children and people with disabilities. This must not be a country where seniors and people disabilities will sleep side-by-side with their home care workers on skid row when their home care workers no longer have jobs.

Is this the vision of America you have Governor Schwarzenegger? Save your soul and everybody else’s and let America be America: a decent livable community where we all take care of each other and in times of trouble pull together. A country where sacrifice is shared. Knocking the legs out from under frail seniors and children and adults with disabilities is just too easy. This is not the kind of leadership we want this is not the kind of state we want. Are we in a jungle or are we in America?


Nancy Becker Kennedy

Nancy Becker Kennedy is former vice chair and current board member of the Personal Assistance Services Council of Los Angeles County that oversees the in-home care needs of over 160,000 Seniors and People with Disabilities.