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Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently announcing his state budget proposal, has his hands where they shouldn’t be yet again–non-consensually groping the coffers of programs that assist many of our most vulnerable.
But, enough of that. Schwarzenegger has provided a "Car Tax Rate Calculator" on his website www.governor.ca.gov. He hopes you’ll be so distracted adding and multiplying your way into feeling good that he’s turning things around, saving you a few bucks, you won’t even notice he is busily working to cut services that will not only screw the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, but you, me and your neighbor in the long run.
It’s the same smoke and mirrors of Bush’s famous tax refund–it provides relatively small, yet concrete "evidence" that he is really on the side of the people. After all, we have our checks to prove it! Our refund check is a shiny, little bauble to divert our attention from his budget plans that are anything but "for the people," plans that make those few hundred dollars we get a drop in the bucket compared to what we’ll pay in future social and economic costs.
For fun, let’s look at a day in the early political life of Schwarzenegger’s economic policy doppelganger, George W. Bush. Within hours of taking office, Bush repealed an ergonomics regulation effort 10 years in the making that would’ve created much-needed safer work environments for the average citizen who finds herself in ever-increasing hazardous, stressful workplaces. Arguing that companies, who can somehow afford to pay their CEO’s many millions of dollars in salary and bonuses even in the hardest of times–hundreds of times the pay of the average worker–couldn’t maintain a profit with the added expense of maintaining a healthy, ergonomically-appropriate work environment. Such a claim is not only absurdly untrue, but its callousness should make your jaw drop. The big, bad ergonomics regulation law was repealed and your right to demand a reasonably healthy work environment all but went down the tubes with it.
In a very similar move that might give one pause, one of Schwarzenegger’s first actions in his early political life was to promise a "reform" in the worker’s compensation system–a very flawed system, to be sure. But, similar to the repealed ergonomics law, the revamping of some of the worker’s comp system during the previous governor’s tenure was meant to better address the needs of injured workers, getting them what they require so they can go back to work. Pro-worker: gasp.
Schwarzenegger counters that pesky injured workers, aided and abetted by their doctors and lawyers, seek medical care too often, and as a result, businesses and beleaguered insurance companies are losing their shirts. This is flatly untrue. Yes, a very small percentage of individuals bilk the worker’s comp system, but that could be said of any system, like all those naughty CEOs who bamboozled their employees and investors out of their life savings with hardly a slap on the wrist, much less any meaningful, sweeping reform of their system.
The truth is, in the latest third quarter of 2003, Zenith, the largest Worker’s Compensation insurer, saw a 200% increase in profits. And, American Financial Group, poor thing, only saw a 600% increase. Despite this astonishing profit, they and other worker’s comp insurance companies cry "hardship" and lobby the governor for some relief, ultimately expecting the worker to sacrifice. If you, Jane Worker, were as lucky as American Financial group, and your income was $15 an hour, it would’ve increased in just a few months to a staggering $900 an hour. But for the gain in profits insurance companies are currently enjoying, you and I can only dream.
So, Bush repeals the ergonomics regulation law, conceivably helping to create and/or maintain unhealthy working conditions, spawning more injured workers who need worker’s compensation assistance. In turn, in California, Schwarzenegger’s worker’s comp "reform" will create less assistance and fewer rights for these injured workers, which in turn will create more unemployment and fewer people to contribute to the economy, creating a new host of economic and very real social problems for them and you and me.
And as long as I digress, let’s not forget Bush’s attempt to eradicate the longstanding worker’s safeguard of the 40-hour workweek. Despite some early defeats, it’s still alive and kicking under the radar screen. The aptly named Labor Department is now trying to bypass Congress, pushing this eradication as an administrative rule change, which doesn’t need congressional consent. The Labor Department has even gone so far as to publish information for employers about how they can legally avoid paying overtime to eligible low-income workers, many of whom depend on this money to support their families.
With the likes of Bush and Schwarzenegger at the helm, you and I have the very real potential to be forced to work unsafely and while injured, with fewer rights, for more and more hours with no comparable increase in pay. It’s a worker’s nightmare come true. This kind of stuff isn’t supposed to happen in America.
In California, it isn’t just the injured workers, but the elderly, school kids, poor working moms and the developmentally disabled folks who won’t get some of the quality programs and services they need if Schwarzenegger’s budget proposals are approved. His property tax revenue alone will rob money from local governments and school districts. If one day, God forbid, your neighbor’s house catches on fire and there are no firemen and women to come put it out, you’ll know why.
After public outcry, Schwarzenegger did backpedal a bit from cuts to the disabled, but cuts are still there. And although he puts on an Academy Award winning populist performance, calling vital social service programs "extras" belies his true attitude and true ignorance. There are more examples than I have hours in the day to explain how essential the programs are in all the areas he proposes to cut, but let’s take an example from social services that I know firsthand to illustrate the point: the mental health system, whose programs are also slowly but surely being gutted (which began way before Schwarzenegger came along).
Sam has been mentally ill and in and out of homelessness for decades. He was finally put into one of the few remaining day treatment programs that serve chronically mentally ill adults, rather than doing what is becoming the standard: going to a 5 minute, monthly visit to his psychiatrist who prescribes medications and sends him on his way, fingers crossed. Day treatment is a place to participate in psychotherapy groups, learn social and practical skills and maybe even have a moment of fun, with the ultimate goal of keeping folks out of the hospital.
In the program, he begins to move beyond mere survival mode; he begins to have some hope. He translates his newfound hope into a sense of self-efficacy and confidence that he can manage his mental illness, take his meds, tend to the daily activities you and I take for granted like going to his medical appointments and making dinner. He then maintains enough stability to get a part time volunteer job, which then translates into a part time paid job. He is now earning a small wage, able to buy and few odds and ends at the local store, and he’s paying some taxes.
His relative stability means that even when he does hit a snag, he is better able to deal with it, rather than, say, rant in the streets, which neither he nor you or I want or enjoy. This equals fewer encounters with police. And he isn’t cycling through the very expensive psych emergency room, an irreplaceable and crucial, yet very costly means of mental health management nearly as often, nor is he frequenting the similarly costly inpatient units. This, in turn, saves you and me and our cities and states a hell of a lot of money in the long run because our tax dollars pay for his visits. And because Sam is using less of the precious ER and inpatient resources, it frees the staff to provide these crucial services to more folks who might otherwise be turned away, back onto the streets.
So, aside from being part of the foundation of a just and truly compassionate society that lives its rhetoric, maintaining vibrant social service programs is smart business. It costs much less to provide Sam with preventative, stabilizing social services on the front end, than it does to catch him in the very expensive psych ER or inpatient unit when he is in crisis. So, the reality is that with cuts in social services, like the cuts in programs to safeguard workers, ultimately it’s not only "them," but also you and I who end up paying the price, financially and socially.
Sam’s scenario is just as profoundly true for those whose programs Schwarzenegger proposes to cut–for school children, struggling welfare folks, the poor, the physically challenged, and the elderly, and it’s also true for prisoners and the developmentally challenged. Those who work in education and social services know very well that like mental health clients, students as well as clients and patients of all kinds (including you and me) who are given adequate preventative and/or enriching services and programs on the front end, services that offer purposefulness, respect, financial or quality of life assistance and skills, produce more stable, healthier, capable, happier people who require fewer acute or intensive programs and services down the line, services that are much more expensive. These programs aren’t "extras"; they’re an essential part of long-term, effective, smart treatment. (You’d think the Bush and Schwarzenegger administrations would understand preemption.)
It would be easy to dismiss this as a bunch of bleeding heart psychobabble, if it weren’t so true and didn’t have such long lasting sociopolitical and economic implications and consequences. Taking an honest accounting of the cost/benefit ratio of social service programs and all the "extras" Schwarzenegger proposes to cut requires serious effort and, ultimately, a changed outlook.
Change is what Schwarzenegger promised us on his campaign trail over and over and over again. He said, "In the election, Californians said they wanted action and not politics as usual." But, although the vast majority of us could really use any financial help we can get, a car tax break for us on the one hand; while cutting social services and education programs on the other, as he pushes a $15 billion bond measure to balance the budget is a page from the well-worn, dog-eared textbook: Politics As Usual 101.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect a man who owns a gaggle of Hummers, wearing suits that cost more than three months of most people’s rent to truly have a clue about the day-to-day challenges that those of us who need social services face, despite his humble beginnings. But, you and I have more than a clue. We don’t need a calculator to figure the cost of Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget cuts; we know, as we do with our president, that Schwarzenegger’s Bush-style, big-business actions don’t add up to his populist words.
Schwarzenegger’s campaign theme song was We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore. He can pledge that he’s "the people’s Governor" all day long, but if he continues to play politics as usual that tune might well come back to haunt him.
CAROL NORRIS is a psychotherapist, freelance writer, and member of CodePink: Women for Peace, the international peace and social justice group that has spoken out about Schwarzenegger’s alleged sexual misconduct. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.