The Blue Welfare State

The Blue Welfare State

With its new budget proposal, California could be poised to go down the social-democratic route taken by most Western democracies three-quarters of a century ago.

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For a split second this week, as I watched the shameful, morally degraded Republican leadership in both the House and Senate fully embrace the horrifying notions that the January 6 insurrection was really no big deal and that any efforts to set up a bipartisan commission to investigate it are illegitimate, I wanted to scrap my West Coast musings for the week and take on these contemptible cowards.

But, truth be told, I’d rather not waste my energies on the McCarthys and McConnells of this world, the McDumbs and the McCynicals. For there are too many other developments, many of them extraordinarily positive, worth paying attention to these days.

As a young man studying politics in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, I was fascinated by two signal events in 20th-century British political history.

The first was the People’s Budget, of 1909–10, a far-ahead-of-its-time effort to jump-start the welfare state. Out of that budget, which was blocked by a reactionary House of Lords for a year before the House of Commons’ Liberal majority voted it into law in 1910, came a universal pension system, national insurance (a precursor to the National Health Service), and unemployment benefits. It was paid for by—shock, horror—significant increases in income taxes on the affluent, including a super-tax on the super-wealthy, as well as estate taxes and land taxes.

A little over 30 years later, in the middle of World War II, came the second event, the publication of the storied Beveridge Report. It laid the groundwork for a postwar welfare system comprehensive enough to essentially provide baseline levels of health care and financial assistance, from “the cradle to the grave.” It is as a result of that report that the National Health Service emerged in the years following 1945, that milk money (more formally known as the child allowance) for mothers came to be a part of the social compact, that public housing was massively expanded, that widows were provided state support, and so on.

Eighty years later, however battered the modern British welfare state may be, its core pillars, especially that of the NHS, remain largely intact. The health service survived the brutalist Thatcher years, and, in these beleaguered pandemic times, it shows every sign of surviving the Johnson era too. In fact, the NHS’s remarkably streamlined vaccine rollout has become the envy of much of the world.

I mention these events not simply to wallow in historical nostalgia, certainly not to wallow in a nostalgia for the England of my childhood, but because the more I read of California Governor Newsom’s May budget-revise proposals, and the more I read of Biden’s aspirations to create federal support systems for families and for children, the more it strikes me that at least the blue states of America could be on the cusp of finally becoming social democracies. There is a pathway at the moment—as rare as, say, a verified sighting of a snow leopard in the Himalaya—to lock into place transformational change, a true and generations-long reimagining of the social compact.

Last week, I wrote about some of the highlights of Newsom’s proposals for how to disburse the $100 billion windfall that California has somehow experienced at the backend of the pandemic: $12 billion to tackle the crisis of rampant homelessness in the Golden State, billions for expanded access to education, for shoring up environmental protections and efforts to tackle climate change, and for stimulus checks to most households in the state.

But the budget priorities outlined in Newsom’s proposal, as he gears up to fight against the recall campaign against him and marshals the extraordinary fiscal firepower of the state to ensure that his priorities gain traction, go far beyond even this.

There are billions of dollars allotted both to high-speed rail projects and to electric rail pilot programs, and there are hundreds of millions of dollars put aside to develop networks of walking and bike trails.

The governor is proposing a $1 billion program that would provide grants to workers laid off during the pandemic so that they can either retrain or start their own businesses. The budget would also set aside $35 million so that a slew of cities around the state could experiment with basic income programs, building off of a successful pilot program launched in the Central Valley city of Stockton a few years back.

There are huge injections of cash into school and university systems, at a level the state hasn’t seen since the heyday of its public education promise in the postwar decades, and there are also promises of billions of dollars to build affordable housing for students around California.

On the health care front, there is a billion-dollar plan to expand Medi-Cal coverage to undocumented seniors. That was a promise made at the start of the Newsom administration only to be shelved as the pandemic took hold and it looked, at least for the first several months, as if state finances were imploding.

A couple days ago, the County Behavioral Health Directors Association lauded the governor for committing $4 billion to behavioral health services for children and young adults, hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the state’s behavioral health workforces, and hundreds of millions of additional dollars to create a network of wellness centers for young Californians.

There are also large investments in probation services, in pretrial diversion programs, and other important criminal justice system reforms.

These are critical investments, and long overdue. After all, a study a couple years back by California Health Policy Strategies of the state’s homeless population found that about 70 percent of the on-the-streets homeless have spent some time in jail or prison, and about 30 percent of the homeless have both done time and have also experienced or are experiencing mental health issues. There’s simply no way to adequately tackle homelessness without acknowledging that prisons and jails are currently feeder systems into homelessness; and there’s no way to break that chain without huge investments in mental health services.

CalMatters crunched the numbers and found that more than 44,000 people are in jail in California while awaiting trial; more than 1,300 of these men and women have spent at least three years in jail without being convicted of a crime, and more than 300 of these have been behind bars upwards of five years. Those are truly scandalous numbers—and, again, bringing those numbers down requires concomitant investments in diversion programs ranging from drug treatment facilities to supportive housing.

Newsom’s budget proposal includes, among other reforms, $300 million to eliminate traffic fines that low-income residents have accumulated over the past six years. That sort of change has long been urged by criminal justice reformers who know that, too often, people end up behind bars not because of the seriousness of their crimes but because conditions of poverty prevent them from paying fines and court fees, and keep them ensnared in criminal justice institutions for years on end.

All of which brings me back to my historical musings. I wonder if, out of the heartbreak of the pandemic, blue America has finally decided to go down the social-democratic route taken by Western European, Canadian, and Australasian democracies three-quarters of a century ago. “The May Budget Revise” doesn’t exactly sound catchy, but, if Newsom survives the recall campaign, and if his budget ends up as the template for a vast transformation in California’s social compact, it might ultimately prove as significant a document for California as the People’s Budget and Beveridge Report were for the United Kingdom all those long decades ago.

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