West Coast Wasteland | The Nation


West Coast Wasteland

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Half a state away from Davis, in the working-class, heavily industrial southern Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, tea partyers have taken to demonstrating weekends on the grassy street corner on the southwest side of the civic center. Their main bugbear is the fear of federal tax hikes to fund Obama's social programs. But talk to them--mostly white, mostly old, almost all beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare, dwellers in a bungalow-land built from the wages doled out by government-funded military industries--and they quickly pivot into a denunciation of state and local tax increases too.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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"I think we need to get the government to understand we won't accept new taxes--the federal government. The state needs to listen also," explains 75-year-old Donald Mitchell, sitting by the information table at a recent protest. A retired Hughes Aircraft engineer with a hearing aid in his left ear, a ruddy complexion and thinning, yellowing hair, Mitchell believes there's a power grab under way that is converting the country he loves to socialism. "The government is trying to take over one-sixth of our economy with healthcare, and that gets awfully close to socialism. Forget about the ownership of the banks."

These shock-troop opponents of healthcare reforms are also the most vociferous defenders of Proposition 13, the people who saw their tax rates locked in a generation ago and who are now unwilling to pony up more cash for the benefit of a younger, browner population. They watch Glenn Beck and listen to Rush Limbaugh--or to his virulently right-wing LA variants on The John and Ken Show. They believe big government is bringing down the Republic, and they're all too happy to wave at cars passing along Crenshaw Boulevard a bizarrely adapted US flag--the stripes and a circle of thirteen stars representing the original colonies, inside of which is the Roman numeral II, which stands, I'm told quietly, for the Second Revolution.

On the ground, the effects of this stalemate--one party wedded to big spending, another equally wedded to anti-taxism; one part of the population interested in building infrastructure, another only too happy to retreat further into its privatized world--have been catastrophic.

Mental health clinics are closing, state parks are limiting their admissions hours, county health clinics are shutting their doors, in-home services to the elderly have been decimated. And access to the state's health plan for low-income kids has been restricted--a less draconian option, it must be said, than the one contemplated at the height of the crisis: completely defunding the plan. At one point last summer, friends reported to me in amazement that local playgrounds had padlocked their toilet doors.

Shamefully, as a result of a line-item veto by Schwarzenegger in 2009, domestic violence centers have been all but defunded. In Santa Clarita, an exurb on the edge of Antelope Valley with a growing heroin and meth problem, that meant the loss of $200,000 for the local center; the firing of several counselors responsible for helping the 200-plus clients who came through the doors each year; the replacement of a full-time shelter advocate with three part-time ones; and an inability to pay rent on the down-at-the-heel suite of rooms the center occupied in a low-grade strip mall. Until a local businessman offered the use of one of his buildings a few miles away at below-market rates, the center teetered on the edge of closure.

"It's left us with two full-time staff in the office, including myself," asserts 32-year-old executive director Nicole Shellcroft. "Our clinical director volunteers two days a week to do therapy, and we have one part-time administrator. With two of us in the office, we have five lines that ring. We may miss someone or not be able to provide court accompaniment coverage."

At the same time that staffing has plummeted, the number of desperate people contacting the center for help has grown. Shellcroft and her colleague will answer the doorbell, and there'll be a mom with her kids and their suitcases standing outside, pleading for help in getting into a shelter.

Instead of working to protect the poor and maintain local services during these tough times, the state is punishing localities to cover for its own dysfunction. California's budget crisis "is as big a threat as the bank failures were," argues LA City Council president Eric Garcetti. City politicians, he says, "feel like the guy who knows times are tough; we cut back expenses, sold the car, got an old clunker and stopped going out to dinner. And there's a guy down the street saying, 'My Ferrari's not working. Give me your money.'" The state, Garcetti adds in clarification, is the Ferrari owner.

"I'm aghast at what's happened there [in Sacramento]," Mayor Villaraigosa declares. "The gridlock, the partisanship, the pervasive vitriol, which has prevented us from solving this crisis." LA has a $30 million hole in its housing authority budget and is only able to subsidize rent for one-bedroom apartments these days, no matter the size of the needy family. Because the state took the city's redevelopment dollars, park construction has been put on hold. And severely mentally ill patients around the city are being turned away from clinics because the money simply isn't there to treat them.

"We have a beautiful building and we're on life support," Dr. Steven Hochstadt, director of clinical services at the VMH facility in Glendale, explains. "It's all edifice."

It could serve as an epitaph for California these days: a gorgeous state with a terrific infrastructure built up over the past century, but no money or political will to keep the place running properly.

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