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California Budget Cuts Hurt the Laboring Poor

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The state and federal budget crises are bringing deep cuts to government-sponsored public assistance. Many of California's most needy, including a disproportionate number of children, are facing profound reductions in aid. CalWORKs, which provides day care assistance to working families with minor children, faces the largest cuts in 25 years. And day care for 11- and 12-year old kids of working parents stands to be slashed entirely.

Wrenching as they are, many feel these cuts are justified. Anecdotal stories often circulate about purported welfare cheats squandering the public's money in casinos, at strip clubs, and on drugs. For example, Sacramento-based CalWatchDog recently accused day care recipients of "sponging" off of the state. A self-described conservative blogger called all welfare recipients "lazy good-for-nothing moochers" who take "extravagant vacations in Hawaii." Assemblywoman  Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, wants CalWORKs parents to be tested for drugs. If the parents fail, then the kids would be cut off. 

As all taxpayers find their wallets a little thinner each month, the temptation grows to view public assistance recipients as undeserving. 

But such stories are usually false. Today's welfare recipients are often the laboring poor -- single mothers working long hours at low-wage jobs. When their kids are cut out of childcare many of them must choose between leaving their children alone or quitting their jobs.

Far from being cheats, these women are heroes. Here are some of their stories. They are not unique:

After being homeless for six months, Keisha Pitts, 38, found a job as a customer service representative for a Fresno insurance company, where she earns $12.75 per hour. With five children, that does not come close to paying the bills.

CalWORKs allows Ms. Pitts to work and go to night school to obtain a BA in business. Her plan was to find better work and get off public assistance entirely. But now she may have to quit and go on food stamps. "I've moved five steps forward; now I am being moved 10 steps back," she said.

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Keyra Stafford, 31, is studying to get her BA and then hopes to study nursing. She also works full time, for $12 per hour, assisting disabled adults. Childcare for her kids costs about $1,000 per month. Now, "I have to quit school or quit work," she said. "I thought the idea was to get people away from government services," she added. Instead, the cuts "are pushing me into a corner of depending more on government services."

Yvette Morones , 47, had never been on public assistance before her daughter was born seven years ago. She waited until she had a job paying $33,000 per year before she had her child. "What I did not realize," she said, "was how much childcare costs. At $125 per week, I can't afford it." CalWORKs filled the gap.

Now, she is considering sending her child to live with her mother in another town. That is the only way for her to keep her job. "Am I supposed to sacrifice my time with my daughter because I cannot afford to put her in good day care?" she asked.    The answer from the legislature is yes.

Finally, Sharon Esquivel, 54, has provided lunches and day care out of her Fresno house for 21 years. The parents cannot afford it without CalWORKs subsidies of $500 to $700 per month. CalWORKs has not paid Esquivel for four months. Even if those bills are paid, the CalWORKs cuts set to go into effect in July will close her child care business. "I love my kids," she said. "If I don't feed them, they don't eat. Where will they get their milk?"

As accusations fly against those on public assistance, we should remember that many of the people we are abandoning make valuable long-term contributions to society. When they are forced out of their jobs and onto food stamps or other emergency aid, the costs to everyone will be even higher.

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Eric Berkowitz is a San Francisco attorney who volunteers at Bay Area Legal Aid, as well as other legal aid groups. The women discussed in this article are not clients of Bay Area Legal Aid.

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Eric Berkowitz is a writer and attorney living in San Francisco, where he is finishing up a book of the history of morals laws, called "Judging Desire," and where he does quite a bit of legal work for the underprivileged.

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California Budget Cuts Hurt the Laboring Poor