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The Welfare of the People Shall Be the Supreme Law

By Sonja Fitz
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 08:58:00 AM

Prior cuts to Alameda County’s General Assistance loan program and new cuts that will go into effect January 1 represent the worst tendencies of politics and bureaucracy: short-term thinking and scapegoating the poor. A county budget is a public commitment of resources to a list of shared priorities created by the people and for the people, to borrow a phrase—the key word being, People. A humane government prioritizes the basic survival needs of its people above all other concerns: there are other places in the budget to cut, and other sources of additional revenue that can be considered. 

General Assistance (GA) is a loan program, not a handout, that provides a small monthly sum of financial assistance to the poorest seniors, veterans, disabled people, transition-age youth, domestic violence survivors, and people seeking jobs whose unemployment benefits have run out. Without GA, thousands of people would have zero income. Z.E.R.O. As such, General Assistance should be among the most protected line items in the budget, along with public health services, food, shelter, and survival support. Before a community can flourish and grow, its residents must have their most basic needs met. 

Never mind all that high-minded basic needs mumbo jumbo, the county says, and as of Jan. 1 it will provide only three months of GA per year to recipients deemed employable. (Still no firm word on how that will be defined, but you know, don’t bother us with minor details…) Right now, there are thousands of people in the Bay Area who have lost their job in the economic downturn and are spending weeks if not months looking for work. These individuals have solid, up-to-date job skills and recent work histories and still experience a protracted search. Yet the county somehow believes a welfare recipient with lower skills and no recent work experience can be on the job in three months. 

And worse, the looming GA cuts go beyond simple “across the board” redress in an economic downturn—they enter the realm of murky judgment calls on the lives of men and women in need. The county is proposing to slash a recipient’s GA grant for the following reasons: 

• Up to $84 if the recipient lives with a roommate: This leaves the typical recipient with about $250 for an entire month of living expenses, including rent. 

• Up to $40 unless the person receives MediCal, since if the person does not receive MediCal the county is aiming to recoup some of the funds it says it will expend on public health services for that person. 

• And most insidiously, up to $231 if the recipient’s rent is more than the amount of the GA check, since the County deems this to be fraud. Since a person’s rent can easily be more than the person’s GA check ,necessitating a roommate and yet having a roommate kicks in the first tier of cuts, this again leaves a person with z.e.r.o. 

Is your head spinning yet? It should be. Many of us are making do with less these days and living closer to our budgets. In all honesty, most of us haven’t got a clue what it means to make do with less. Or with nothing.  

The GA cuts will increase homelessness, suffering, and destitution for thousands in our community. The trite axiom that balancing budgets is fairest when cuts are made “across the board” is both inhumane (the neediest people in the community suffer) and inefficient (cutting welfare only raises costs to emergency response, police, hospitals, and other public costs)—not to mention patently untrue: many claim a flat tax is more “fair” but the majority agrees that in fact it is more fair to ask those of us with greater resources to shoulder a larger part of the tax burden, and thus our tiered tax system. By the same compassionate reasoning, it holds true that those facing greater hardships deserve a greater share of support—even, and especially, in a financial crisis. To echo the state motto of Missouri, who got this one right at least in principle—“The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” (By contrast, California’s state motto is “Eureka!” Make of that what you will.) 

Please join us on New Year’s Eve to protest the inhumane cuts that will go into effect the next morning—Thursday, Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Alameda County Board of Supervisors Plaza at 1221 Oak Street in Oakland. This is more than a merely symbolic gathering—already, fighting back has made an impact, and one of the initially proposed cuts has been eliminated (using W-9s to screen out recipients). To get involved, contact event co-organizer (and executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency) boona cheema at 649-1930 x 225 or visit  




Sonja Fitz is the development director for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), an Alameda County nonprofit organization serving more than 1,500 homeless and disabled people each year, both single adults and families with children. For more information, see