By Assemblymember Sandré R. Swanson
As Chairperson of the Assembly Labor & Employment Committee, California’s working families are at the forefront of my mind every day. Our budgetary crisis has thrown into stark focus the many issues our workforce faces, highlighting the reforms and investments we must make now to ensure that Californians continue to prosper, and that our state becomes even more competitive as we move forward into the 21st century.
Our first and most important task is to ensure the health, safety, and education of our children is truly our top priority, and that our State budget reflects that value. Education is the cornerstone of our workforce, with the best educated generation, the Baby Boomers, having led the way as they graduated from quality public schools to build one of the most powerful economies on the planet.
Sadly, we are now struggling to keep even the most rudimentary programs and services in place, falling from the top ten to the bottom ten in terms of our funding for schools in this country. The results can’t be more apparent: incredibly high dropout rates, increasing incidences of youth violence, and more and more students unprepared for college or the workforce. In the end, we spend more on state services for the unemployed, and even more on incarcerating well over 100,000 prisoners, the most in the nation, many of whom are unable to read at a middle school level.
This is where our investment in our workforce begins: fully funding child care, preschool, k-12, and the community colleges and university systems that once made California the model state in education. Every dollar we spend and every effort we make, as legislators, as activists, as citizens, and as parents, to improve our schools, will pay off for literally generations to come. The Governor’s attempt at fairness, cutting 10% of everything in the budget, including our most vital investment in this State, is the exact opposite of where we need to begin.
We must also make this commitment today, and not a minute later. Nearly every profession in every sector of our economy, from teachers to nurses, electricians to construction workers, is facing an impending disaster in human resources. The largest generation in our nation’s history is retiring, and we currently do not have enough properly trained people to take their place. Our economy will be forced to stagnate or shrink without new workers, as growth opportunities pass by and previous commitments, including pensions for those who have given a lifetime of service, will continue to eat into company budgets, impairing our ability to compete on the world stage.
The burden of health care will also become increasingly heavier, and it is a problem that we must come solve if we are to remain prosperous and competitive. Businesses, particularly the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy, must either force their workers to go without or else risk bankruptcy. Hard working families face almost exactly the same dilemma; make incredibly expensive health insurance payments or risk bankruptcy from a medical emergency. Our country is the last developed nation in the world that fails to offer some form of rational health system. In fact, even many developing nations are moving ahead of us. Until the Federal Government implements a system that covers everyone, I fully support California taking the first step and implementing a single payer program that covers all Californians, as Sen. Sheila Keuhl has advocated over her term in office.
Every one of these challenges would be daunting in a regular budget year. This year, we face a nearly unprecedented budget deficit, in the midst of an economic downturn brought about by rampant foreclosures in our most vulnerable communities. How can we be expected to handle these problems now? The answer is that we simply cannot afford to wait any longer. The next budget year, and the one after that, and subsequent years will have their own set of challenges, and what we do this year will set the tone for how we address those challenges for many years to come. We have a simple choice: we begin to address these problems now or we continue to face them as they continue to compound and grow each year.
Fortunately, this budget crisis provides us an excellent opportunity to ask the one question that is fundamental to addressing every one of these problems: what do we stand for? What do we, as a State, as a diverse community of working families, what do we stand for? If we stand for a strong future for our kids, for jobs that pay a living wage and are available to every Californian who is ready to work, in an economy that is both green and growing, then we must set our budget priorities to those ideals and begin the process of rebuilding California. A fully educated workforce, created by a fully funded education system that meets the needs of every child, will decrease incarceration, lower crime, and improve the quality of life for everyone who lives here. Best of all, this workforce will stabilize our revenue base, thereby solving our structural deficit and allowing our state to continue investing in vital services for our future.
These ideas are not new, but they are ideas whose time is now. What it will take to make these goals and ideals a reality is for people across California to stand up and demand that those representatives who work for them act on those priorities. That means we need your voice, and the voice of everyone you know, to send your representatives that message. Our children, and the future that they and we will inhabit, deserve nothing less.
Assemblymember Sandré R. Swanson represents the 16th Assembly District, including Oakland, Alameda, and Piedmont, in the California State Assembly