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Save our state

October 8, 2009

I don’t want to alarm you, but you need to know that a small group of people are holding our state government hostage.

But there’s good news: a movement to restore majority rule is growing.

Home dysfunctional home

California is now the world’s eighth largest economy (it used to be sixth, I don’t know who got ahead of us). There is a lot of money in this state. There’s no good reason why all children can’t have good schools, quality child care and preschool programs, after-school and summer recreation programs, why we can’t have good public transportation, parks that stay open. There’s no good reason why old and disabled people can’t get enough money and assistance to live in dignity. Why we can’t provide help for poor families, along with jobs and job training so they can get out of poverty. Why we aren’t making sure that everyone has enough to eat and health care.

So why are we falling so far short?

Is it because Californians aren’t willing to pay taxes?

Well, a lot of people have bought the propaganda of right-wing politicians who tell them that all government services are bad and they shouldn’t have to pay taxes.

But it’s also true that poll after poll has shown that Californians want, for example, better schools — even if it means paying higher taxes.

Hostage to a minority

The real reason our state government is collapsing is that a minority of legislators—about 45, give or take—block any move to raise enough money to provide the services we need. This is happening because:

  1. California has a rule that all taxes and all budgets have to be passed by a 2/3 majority. (Only 2 other states have rules like this).

  2. All the Republicans but one in our state legislature have taken a pledge promoted by public-services-hater Grover Norquist (“I don’t want to destroy government, I just want to starve it until it’s small enough to drown in the bathtub”) that they won’t vote for any new taxes for any reason ever.

This is not democracy. Think about it:

A majority of us voted for the majority of legislators who would like to find sensible new revenue sources.

But because a minority has 1) the power and 2) the political determination to hold our state hostage, the majority is blocked from adopting no-brainer revenue measures such as:

  • Raising taxes on high-income earners to the level they were under Republican Governor Pete Wilson in the early ’90s

  • Taxing oil when it comes out of the ground, as every other oil-producing state does

  • Extending the sales tax to luxury services—the part of our economy that’s actually growing.

  • Ending tax loopholes that do nothing but fork over more money to those that already have a lot – such as the trick that allows yacht-buyers to avoid paying sales tax and the corporate “job-creation” tax credit that has created no jobs.

We need majority rule

We need to change this two-thirds rule to majority rule, so the majority of Californians can raise enough revenue to build the California our children deserve.

The only way to do this is with a ballot measure.

We desperately need a referendum to restore majority rule on the 2010 ballot.

What’s frustrating is that our political leaders, most of whom know this perfectly well and talk about it all the time, don’t seem to be trying to make it happen.

I’ve heard lots of excuses. My least favorite is, “It doesn’t poll well.” Come on, people. The quality of our lives— and for some, survival itself – depend on this. Make it poll well. Raise money, organize the grassroots, go around making speeches to every church and civic organization in California, dramatize the issues to get TV coverage. Explain what’s at stake. It’s called “leadership.”

Stirrings of hope

Recently a grassroots coalition has been laying the groundwork for a one-sentence ballot measure they hope to put on the 2010 ballot:

All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by majority vote.”

Doesn’t that sound like democracy?

The group working to put this on the ballot describes itself as “a coalition of grassroots organizations, advocacy groups, web-based collectives, union members, Democratic clubs, religious groups and concerned Californians.”

If you want to help, you can go to their web site,, where you can sign up to volunteer, get on their email list, and, of course, give money.

I don’t know if they can pull it off.

But I do know that as long as the two-thirds rules are in effect, they will translate into an unimaginable amount of wasted potential, sickness, poverty, crime, and death. In one of the richest states in the world. How can we let this continue?


September 25, 2009

When I was young — you don’t even want to know how many years ago — one of the things that made me maddest was how low the pay was for people who worked in child care. I felt like that just showed how little respect and concern there was for little kids — and for women, because taking care of little kids was women’s work. People felt like you didn’t need to know much to do it — women just sort of did it naturally. It was the hormones or something. Ignorance about how amazingly much young children learn in their early years went together with lack of respect for women, and it all made a nice little package.

Now all of a sudden everybody knows that babies’ brains are growing like mad and a lot of people understand that experience in the first few years has a huge impact on that brain growth. There’s a lot of talk about the need for high-quality early education.

What else has changed? Nothing.

People who work with young children are still almost all women (97%, actually) and actually their pay has fallen compared to other workers in the last few decades. So guess what? So has the education level of the workforce. And the same old turnover (that had one of my kids  so freaked out the whole year she was three because she never knew who was going to be in the classroom that day) is still going on.

Now in certain circles there’s a lot of talk about how to improve the quality of early education. But if you stop and think about it for half a minute, you know as well as I do that the quality of the experience of a group of little kids depends mainly on the people taking care of them.  They have to really understand child development and be skilled in a variety of strategies for promoting it (because kids are all different) and for creating a positive group environment. And they have to be un-stressed enough to have the incredible amount of mental and emotional energy they need to do it. Like not cleaning houses in the evenings after work so they can pay the rent, or worrying about their car breaking down, or dealing with that mysterious pain that they can’t go to the doctor for because they don’t have health insurance.

There are a lot of studies showing that kids do better when their caregivers have more education. But let’s be real. How are these low-paid workers — many of whom don’t have much education to begin with, many of whom come from other countries and haven’t had much chance to learn English, many of whom have a lot of family responsibilities (this is women we’re talking about, remember), some of whom (family child care providers) work 12-hour days — going to sail off to college on top of everything else they’re dealing with?

Ta-da! There’s an answer! (Bet you didn’t think I was going to say that). Or at least a big start toward an answer. It’s a California program called CARES, which has stood for various things at various times. But the point is it gives people who work with little kids the support they need to actually get more education.

Starting with money. Yes, folks, CARES rewards child care teachers/providers financially for getting more education. Maybe they don’t have to take that second job after all and can go to school instead. But that’s not all. CARES provides knowledgeable, sympathetic people who sit down with you and help you plan your career/education path — which can be incredibly complicated with all the different schools and requirements. And CARES actually works with colleges to help create programs that are more user-friendly: early childhood education courses in Spanish, courses in your neighborhood, in the evening or on the weekends, general education courses (like English and math) that have reading and examples relevant to early childhood education.

In the eight or nine years of its existence, CARES has helped thousands and thousands of people who work with young children get more education (including lots of AAs and BAs), stay in the field — and pay their bills. And I can tell you it has transformed the culture in the early childhood workforce. People feel like professionals. They feel like continuing to learn is part of the deal. They feel professional pride.

So problem solved, right? Wrong.

CARES is a program of California First 5, and First 5 is in the process of abolishing all its old programs and figuring out which new ones to set up. Which means that just as CARES is transforming the field, we could lose it. OR the California First 5 Commission could decide to continue its key elements — stipends and financial supports, ongoing one-on-one educational advisement, ongoing focused efforts to make college courses and degree programs more user-friendly.

The commission will decide soon. What can I tell you? Their meetings are open and they have to take public comment. The next meeting is Oct. 21 at the L.A. headquarters of the California Endowment, 1000 N. Alameda, 10 to 3. You could go and speak. For real. Or send them a letter. Better yet, get all the people you work with, or the people in your parents’ group,  to send them letters. Or send them one letter and sign all your names.

This is not just about the well-being of child care workers. This is about whether little kids will have rich, joyful, loving, exciting learning environments that launch them on a life of learning and confidence. So they grow up to be the people we want to live with, work with, and depend on.


September 16, 2009

As I’ve been listening to all the debates about health care reform, I’ve been thinking even more about this idea of YOYO vs. WITT. I can’t take credit for it. It was invented by a guy named Jared Bernstein, who’s the head of a think tank called the Economic Policy Institute. (

Bernstein was writing about the problem I fret about all the time — the 30-year campaign that’s been going on since around the time our last movie-star-governor got himself elected president. It’s a campaign to convince people that spending money on public services (schools, health care, roads and bridges, parks, job training) is a bad thing because someone else might benefit from your tax money. If people need something, they should pay for it. If they can’t, that’s not my problem. As Bernstein puts it, YOYO: You’re on Your Own.

The problem with that way of looking at things, Bernstein says, is that We’re In This Together — WITT. A lot of the things we need, like schools, or a quality health care system, or clean air, or safe bridges, or programs to train people for new careers, are not things people can buy as if they were a T-shirt.  If we don’t create them as a community, they won’t be there when we need them.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life not only taking care of kids but also hanging out with other people who take care of kids — parents, child care providers, teachers, doctors and nurses, social workers. We’ve all seen how the YOYO philosophy has hurt children. And cutting the quality of education, closing clinics, destroying after-school programs, cutting support for families — taking away the things that kids need to help them grow up right — hurts everybody.

Because we actually are in this together. You may not have kids in school — but you better hope that the next time you get on a plane, the mechanic who fixed that problem with the engine had a good education. Your family may have health insurance now, but if you lose your job, you’ll be right there signing your kids up for  Healthy Families.  You might not care if the after-school program closes — until a kid breaks into your car because he has nothing else to do. You may have enough money to take care of your kids — but if we don’t take better care of kids in foster care, you’ll be spending more in a few years housing them in prison.

We’re In This Together. WITT. Think about it when you listen to the arguments about health care reform. Think about it when the California budget battle starts up again in a few weeks.

We could be doing so much better.


Bernstein’s book where he talks more about YOYO vs. WITT and how the struggle between these two ways of thinking have played out in recent US history is All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy, which you can read more about and order if you want at

Why don’t YOU make some news?

September 8, 2009

Kids are back in school in California, viewing some of the wreckage of the California state budget disaster. Their classes are larger, some of the cool young teachers they could relate to best are gone, the stuff that made many of them want to go to school (sports, music, art) has been cut even more.

Meanwhile they’re trying to decide which state parks to close!

And I just keep thinking about the really heartbreaking situations — people with disabilities who can’t get home care any more, women who struggling with domestic violence but the local domestic violence program just closed. Hungry kids. Despair.

Meanwhile we’re the only oil-producing state that doesn’t tax oil coming out of the ground. And just the tax cuts and loopholes passed in the last 10 years take more than $10 billion from the state budget every year.

Sure, I’m angry. Because I’m seeing what people are going through and I know it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not because of some natural disaster–or even economic disaster.  It’s because of the last 30-plus years of California politics.

I explained how it all happened to my grandson Tony, who’s only 10 but he’s pretty smart, and a wonderful artist named Gabriel Leonoudakis drew the pictures, and the Children’s Advocate printed the whole story last May.  You can see it (in English, Spanish, and Chinese) at

(check out the Children’s Advocate while you’re there–lots of important stuff about what’s going on with kids and the people who take care of them in California)

So I thought if I invited you to sit down at my kitchen table, maybe I could give you some information and ideas that might help you get involved in trying to change things. I always liked that Scoop Nisker on KFOG in San Francisco. He ended his news report with the same tagline every time: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

That’s enough for now. Next time I”ll tell you about two slogans that sum up the whole thing: The acronyms are YOYO vs. WITT.  See if you can figure out what they stand for.