A State Struggles to Cast Off Its Burdens

If you are intrigued by the possibility that this recession holds a darker, more troubling message for California than recessions of the past, then look no further for new evidence. Gov. Pete Wilson's slasher attack on the welfare system, announced in his Monday speech, contains plenty.

At first glance, this assault looks like other, past attempts by Republican leaders to blame the poor for economic setbacks. And it may be. Wilson is starting to look like a politician badly in need of a scapegoat.

But Wilson's attack is also something more. It is evidence of a state government floundering in its own impoverishment, increasingly desperate to cut itself free of commitments made when times were flush. And of a leadership that sees California's future in terms very different from those of the past.

We'll get back to the big picture, but first let's deal with the Wilson welfare whammy. Although his speech contained some polite references to fostering the work ethic, the governor made little or no pretense that his plan amounts to welfare "reform." This is a program to cut welfare, and cut it deeply.

For starters, Aid to Families With Dependent Children--the 800-pound gorilla of the welfare business--would be reduced 10% across the board. Benefits would be cut by another 15% after the first six months for families that include an able-bodied adult.

Welfare immigrants would receive, for the first year anyway, what they got in their old states, not the generally higher benefits offered in California. Welfare moms would receive no additional support for new children. Cost-of-living increases would end permanently.

Et cetera. What you see here is a plan that leaves blood on the floor. And you may conclude that it amounts to a major change in the career of our seemingly mild-mannered, Clark Kent-ish governor.

What it really amounts to is a change in California. The state finds itself facing not one but two financial crises at the same moment. There is the recession, which--for the first time in memory--has struck harder here than elsewhere.

And then there is the other crisis, more difficult to define. Wilson has sought to describe it in demographic terms. Namely, he says, the number of tax payers in the state has failed to keep pace with the number of tax receivers. In his welfare speech, Wilson pointed out that a decade ago California had 6.9 taxpayers for each welfare recipient. By the year 2000, the state will have only 2.9 taxpayers per recipient. And those numbers, if unchecked, add up to deficits in the range of $20 billion per year.

Lest you think that this crisis is a concoction of conservative Republicans, consider that no less a liberal than New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan now makes the same gloomy forecasts for the nation as a whole. Moynihan says the country finds itself in the throes of a "culture of dependency" where ever-growing numbers of citizens survive off the government dole.

Neither Moynihan nor anyone else really understands the origins of this dependency crisis. It may have something to do with immigration from Third World countries. Or the decade-long erosion of jobs. Or it may be that the dependent population has reached a critical mass and is now expanding without regard to the economy.

Whatever, California appears to have a worse case than other regions of the country. Dependency has grown faster here than elsewhere, and costs more. During the 1980s, the crisis remained camouflaged because an ever-expanding economy absorbed the burden.

But no more.

So the Wilson plan represents something more than the usual, dreary fight over welfare. We are seeing a crippled government trying to save itself by casting off those who are perceived to be dragging it into insolvency. The tax receivers are being uncoupled from the "real" constituency of government: the tax payers.

The uncoupling is not total, mind you, and not precipitous. It is designed to be gradual, discreet, so that the process is hardly noticeable from month to month. The change occurs slowly.

And what happens to the uncoupled, the people who once were simply called "the needy"? No one knows. Maybe they'll all go to McDonald's and get jobs flipping fillets o' fish. Maybe they'll go to New York, which isn't on to the trick of uncoupling, yet.

But I doubt it. Most likely, they'll sink a little further into misery. They'll sleep in the car, dig around the dumpsters, become invisible.

The once-dependent. The now uncoupled. It has a ring to it, no?

I'm betting they're the wave of the future. And remember, we invented them here in California.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World