By Caitlin Vega
California Labor Federation
When I went to Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) in the late 90's, I couldn't understand why anyone went anywhere else. Small classes, great teachers, and a student body who were passionate and excited to be there. We all worked, many had kids, most were the first in the family to go to college. We were tired, bedraggled, and usually late to class but we were in love with this new life of learning.
I worked as a tutor in the afternoons and as a waitress on the weekends. I paid each quarter as it came, maybe $400 dollars tuition and $200 more on books? I was able to pay my way through college, five years and a double-major, on two part-time jobs and a Cal-Grant. And after graduation I had the freedom to do exactly the work I wanted without the crushing burden of massive student loans.
Those were the days. This week, the CSU system announced its second tuition increase in one year. A year's tuition at a state college now costs about $6400, clearly out of reach for so many families.
In this era of deep and destructive cuts, there is no shortage of heartbreak. Welfare benefits for the poorest families in our state cut to pre-1987 levels. A 50 percent increase in homeless kids in the Sacramento school system. Each of these says something terrible about the state of our safety net and the levels of suffering we seem willing to tolerate.
And to me, what's happening at the CSU is about more than just the kids who can't get in due to budget cuts or will have to drop out because they can't afford the fees. It’s about whether we live in a society where kids from working class families can have any hope of finding greater opportunities than their parents had. Without an accessible state school system creating a bridge to the middle class, California will increasingly be a land of the haves and have nots.
How is it that in the great state of California, we cannot provide for the most basic needs of our children? How is it that we cannot reward kids who have done everything right, overcome tremendous hardship, and beat the odds with a decent and affordable education?
Each year, the California Chamber of Commerce has a list of bills they call "job killers." Its hard to understand how an organization that backs the free trade agreements that have sent tens of thousands of jobs overseas has much credibility as to what policies kill jobs but its a catchy title for sure.
But these days, looking around at the California that my little boys will grow up in, what I see are "dream killers." Politicians who will cut off a lifeline to needy families, but won't even allow Californians to vote on tax extensions. They will fight to preserve corporate tax breaks, even while eliminating college opportunities for tens of thousands of students.
Republican leader Connie Conway explained at a press conference that Republican lawmakers care about the safety net too, but "We just don't want it turning into a hammock with cute little drinks with umbrellas." Um, families of three on Cal-Works are now getting just $460 a month. That's seriously not enough to pay for food, forget drinks or umbrellas.
We cannot allow them to kill the California we believe in. The dream of every family, the reason every immigrant comes to this nation, the goal that parents scrimp and save and sacrifice for is for the next generation to have it a little better. It is up to us to make that dream a reality.
Caitlin Vega is a Legislative Advocate for the California Labor Federation, representing 2.1 million union members in manufacturing, retail, construction, hospitality, public sector, health care, entertainment and other industries. This article originally appeared on the Labor's Edge blog.