Editor's Notes

Cutting services for the poor, as opposed to cutting things rich people want and need, or making them pay a tiny bit more to keep society stable, is a political choice


The absolute most stunning statement of how messed up the state of California is emerged last week from the state director of finance, explaining why the proposed budget cuts fall so heavily on services for the poor. Let me quote directly from The New York Times:

"Government doesn't provide services to rich people," Mike Genest, the state's finance director, said on a conference call with reporters on Friday. "It doesn't even really provide services to the middle class.

"You have to cut where the money is," he added.

Um ... government doesn't provide services to rich people? What about, say, the roads they drive on, and the airports they fly in and out of? What about the vast sums the state spends putting out fires that threaten wealthy enclaves in Southern California? What about the public education system, which trains workers for businesses? What about the entire criminal justice system, which exists to a significant extent to prevent poor people from taking rich people's money?

Do you think Sergey Brin and Larry Page would have become Google billionaires if the Internet — developed and paid for by the government — didn't exist?

No. Federal, state, and local governments all spend money on services for the rich. And by and large, those services don't get cut when budgets are busted, and by and large, the rich don't pay their fair share for the services they get — and by and large, nobody in politics talks about that when these nasty decisions get made.

It doesn't have to be this way. Let's just remember that as 900,000 kids lose their health insurance and California becomes, in the words of Mayor Gavin Newsom, the first state in the industrialized world to have no welfare system at all. It doesn't have to be this way.

Cutting services for the poor, as opposed to cutting things rich people want and need, or making them pay a tiny bit more to keep society stable, is a political choice.

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees just put out a fascinating document looking at alternatives to the governor's cuts — including a bunch of things that can be done without the two-thirds vote required to raise taxes. There are, for example, about $2.5 billion worth of useless and wasteful tax loopholes identified by AFSCME that could be closed (hurting the rich, helping the rest of us). That would save a lot of health and welfare programs.

San Francisco has choices, too. Downtown parking fees hit wealthier people; Muni fare hikes are a tax on the poor. A congestion management fee on downtown would overwhelmingly hit wealthier commuters; cuts in public health overwhelmingly hit the poor. The Tenderloin's Community Justice Center hurts low-income people (and helps rich tourists and the hotels scare away the homeless).

The thing that kills me is that some of us have been saying over and over — for years and years — that the city needs to develop a better tax system (which will require a public vote) to minimize these cyclical crises. And some of us have been pointing out that a public power system would generate several hundred million a year (and that private power is sucking $600 million a year out of the local economy).

Do we have to keep blundering from disaster to disaster? For how long?


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