MERCED — In the belly of California's Central Valley, hard times have hit harder than just about anywhere. But it's also a stronghold of Republicans ready to shrink the safety net.
One in five Merced County adults are out of work, home foreclosures run rampant and anti-poverty programs are stretched to the limit. The county welfare chief calls it California's Appalachia.
This also is a region represented in the statehouse budget brawl almost exclusively by anti-tax Republicans, whose push to downsize government collides with a sobering reality: A greater percentage of their constituents depend on health and welfare than anywhere else in California.
One in 12 residents of Merced County have tapped CalWorks, the state's welfare-to-work effort, five times the per-capita use in San Francisco. In Stanislaus County, 28,797 of the county's approximately 526,000 residents are in the CalWorks program.
But the region's Republican lawmakers hold fast to a pledge to tame the tax-and-spend cycle of California's Capitol and are backing Gov. Schwarzenegger's plan to slash programs for the poor.
Other rural parts of California face the same situation, from the quiet timberlands of the north to the agricultural heartland of the San Joaquin Valley, where high per-capita use of public health and welfare coexists with small-government GOP representation.
Real people in need
It is a paradox lingering in the background as the state grapples with a $24.3 billion budget deficit.
But it is not lost on Jessica Alvarez, 23.
Little more than a year ago, she was homeless on the streets of Merced, pregnant with twins, gripped by a decadelong methamphetamine addiction. When her babies were born with complications, Alvarez realized the sad consequences of a wasted life.
She entered drug treatment and got into CalWorks. It paid for child care and enrollment at Merced College. She dreams now of becoming a psychologist or lawyer.
"It's really too bad what's happening in Sacramento," Alvarez said. "They don't really think about the lower-class people. ... There are a lot of people in need."
Schwarzenegger's budget proposes slashing health and welfare spending by 26.5 percent. That means eliminating CalWorks, which serves 1.4 million people statewide. It means killing off Healthy Families and slicing Medi-Cal, affecting more than 2 million people, most of them children.
It means cutting home-care workers for elderly and disabled residents in the In Home Supportive Services program, and carving deeply into programs for Alzheimer's and HIV patients. About 95 percent of the 6,037 people in the IHSS program in Stanislaus County would lose services, county officials warn.
About 4 percent of people in Los Angeles County fall back on CalWorks to help land a job, but more than 8 percent use the program in Merced, Fresno and Tulare counties, which routinely send GOP lawmakers to Sacramento.
Although the rural demographics are shifting, old political habits die hard and the GOP retains a political grip in wide swaths of the Central Valley and the far north, said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.
"The opinion leaders remain agriculture and business leaders," she said. " ... They really drive the political climate."
Anti-poverty groups say the anomaly is no secret inside the Capitol.
"We've shown (Republican lawmakers) time and time again — they're voting in ways that are disproportionately more harmful to their own districts," said Michael Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
Painful but necessary
Rural Republicans say California's mammoth deficit makes the cuts a painful but necessary step.
"I don't see any way around it. The truth is it's going to be one of the tougher votes we'll have to do," said Republican Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis, who as GOP leader broke with Republicans in February to approve major tax increases, an act he vows not to repeat.
GOP Assemblyman Jim Nielsen of Gerber said he sees the current calamity as "that inevitable moment" brought on by years of fiscal mismanagement.
"We do want to have compassion," he said. "But the magnitude of this deficit is so huge and the need to act so great."
Democrats say there are alternatives, such as tapping the state's rainy-day reserves, rescinding $1 billion in corporate tax breaks approved in February or enacting a 10 percent tax on oil pumped from California land.
Democratic Assemblywoman Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa said Republicans face a stark choice: "Do they want to keep corporate tax giveaways while throwing women and children off the lifeboat?"
Bee reporter Ken Carlson contributed to this report.