|More Californians rely on food handouts amid rising unemployment and state benefit cuts [EPA]
On Sunday mornings at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in the rough-edged Tenderloin district of San Francisco, the sanctuary is always rocking to old-school gospel music.
“It’s so good to come together,” Pastor Cecil Williams declares. His is a diverse congregation – white and African-American, gay and straight, young and elderly.
For four decades Pastor Williams has been an outspoken advocate for the city’s poor and marginalised. On one bright October Sunday recently, he preached a sermon on compassion and the need for social justice.
“You affirm who you are when you stand up for others in need,” Williams told his flock. “And you can say, we are going to change this old world to a new world.”
But it is a harsh new world in California these days. A state once synonymous with opportunity and prosperity, sunshine and surf, Hollywood and Disneyland have fallen on bitterly hard times.
‘Land of opportunity’
The evidence is no further away than the church basement, where free meals are prepared for homeless and hungry people such as Robert Shirley. He’s been homeless, on and off, for months, he says.
“California was the land of opportunity. You could make it out here,” Shirley says. “Hey, I’m sorry, but California is not that way any more.”
The number of meals served here has jumped 21 per cent since last year. Williams says the free kitchen’s clientele has changed drastically.
“They were people [in food lines] who were carrying briefcases, people who were dressed in suits, people who were dressed up very nicely and had been a part of the middle class”
Robert Shirley, homeless California resident
“They were people who were carrying briefcases, people who were dressed in suits, people who were dressed up very nicely and people who had been a part of the middle class,” he says.
“And we were seeing them come through the lines. And that, of course, was shocking.”
California is the world’s eighth-largest economy, but its unemployment rate is over 12 per cent – the highest in 70 years.
Millions of people lost their homes when the housing bubble burst. Millions more have been thrust into poverty by the recession.
In July, the state legislature haggled for weeks over how to close a $26bn budget gap. Instead of increasing taxes for corporations or the wealthy, the budget deal that emerged to be signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s Republican governor, ordered deep spending cuts, laying off tens of thousands of state workers.
Reduced funding for education, coupled with big tuition increases, sparked a student and faculty strike at California’s public universities. Programmes for ex-prison inmates and parolees have been slashed.
And the social safety net of healthcare and services for the poor, children and elderly – the least powerful and least vocal members of society – has been systematically shredded.
“The people that are going to be effected first and foremost will be the poor, those who are in great need,” Williams says sadly. “They are not considered to be human beings.”
State ‘abandoning its poorest’
In Pleasant Hill, a suburb outside San Francisco, I met a remarkable young woman named Amy Fedeli. Only 24-years old, she has deferred her dream of college and a career in nursing to support her 75-year-old grandmother, Margaret, and seven-year-old niece, Emilia.
She’s keeping faith with her loved ones in a state that is systematically abandoning its poorest and least powerful people.
|Schwarzenegger is fighting a legal challenge against proposed cuts in elderly care [EPA]|
Margaret, who suffers from a neurological disorder and mild dementia, is too frail to be left home alone while Amy goes to her job at a medical-records company.
So she attends a state-funded adult day-care programme where she gets physical and occupational therapy, health checkups, and a chance to interact with other people and keep her mental faculties sharp.
But as part of the effort to pare down the budget deficit, California has cut many programmes for the elderly poor.
New rules would limit seniors to three days a week in adult day care. That is a big problem for the Fedeli family. Without the daily care she gets at the senior centre, Amy says, Margaret might not survive for long.
“She would probably end up in a nursing home,” Amy says. “She would probably pass. She would probably die, God forbid.”
To care for Margaret, Amy would have to quit her job, leaving the little family without any income. Why has she accepted so much responsibility at such a young age?
“It’s family, that’s all I can say,” Amy says. “Your family, you stick with them – that’s all.”
State politics ‘deadlocked’
A legal challenge has temporarily halted some of the cuts to elderly care. But Schwarzenegger is trying to overturn the court ruling and re-institute the cuts.
Donna Calame, who runs a state programme that provides in-home care for seniors, told me the attitude of Schwarzenegger and the legislature makes her livid.
“For me, it’s really obscene,” she said in an interview.
“We are a rich state. I think it is because of the wealth in California that, to me, makes the choices that have been made this year so morally reprehensible.”
“Somewhere, somehow, the public good, as a concept of governance, has disappeared in this state”
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, analyst, University of Southern California
Critics say California’s politics are so deadlocked, its government so dysfunctional, it may become the US’s first failed state.
The state legislature is hamstrung by a law requiring a two-thirds majority vote to raise taxes and pass a budget. That makes compromise practically impossible.
I asked political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California what’s wrong with California.
“What is the matter with California is, that we have become politically so polarised that we can’t agree on something that will make this state work,” Bebitch Jeffe laments.
“Somewhere, somehow, the public good, as a concept of governance, has disappeared in this state.”
The failure of California’s government has bred profound cynicism among its people.
Back at the soup kitchen, Robert Shirley has some blunt advice for the people in charge of the Golden State.
“If our politicians don’t get their heads out of their asses, this state is going to be – let’s put it this way: some of those Third World countries are going to look a lot better than California.”
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.