California, as some may be aware, is in the throes of a severe budget crisis. There are a lot of politics behind the budget issues, which I don’t want to get into in detail here, but the net effect has been especially chilling for social services. California’s cutting cost of living increases, slashing budgets for programs like MediCal, and making other budgetary decisions which are having a profound impact on California’s most vulnerable: Californians living in poverty. Which includes, of course, many Californians with disabilities.
The poverty rate in California is over 13% at the moment. California also happens to have a very high cost of living, which compounds the issue; people who are not technically living in poverty in the eyes of statisticians are also struggling. The unemployment rate is also extremely high, adding even more pressure to the social benefits system in California. These budget cuts, in other words, are even more painful right now than they would be otherwise.
Widespread budget cuts sometimes work in peculiar ways, and I’ve been noticing this of late with California’s public libraries. Our libraries are, to put it politely, struggling. Budget problems in libraries might not seem like an issue as major as, say, cuts to social services which provide people with food and housing, but they’re still important. Because California’s libraries are heavily utilized by vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities, California’s homeless, teens, and Californians who are living in poverty.
No, a book won’t put food on the table. A book won’t keep you warm when it’s close to freezing and you have no home. A book won’t get you a job when you’ve been looking for months. A book won’t pay for the medications you need to stay alive.
But books are important. They’re important on a lot of levels, whether they’re an avenue of escape or an avenue of learning. Whether you want to read a fantasy novel for a few hours to get out of the world you’re living in or you want to research opportunities for going to college, the library can probably hook you up. Libraries provide a huge wealth of beneficial resources; assistance with filing taxes, access to the Internet, information about local laws and benefits programs which people might not be aware of, and, yes, educational programs. Events for low-income children. Free legal clinics. Pretty much anything you can imagine is probably happening at a library somewhere.
Libraries are valuable. They provide an important public service, and here in Fort Bragg, I’ve been watching our library flail for months now with increasing worry. It started with furlough days; the library is now closed on Fridays (it was “temporary” when it was announced way back at the beginning of the year). Then the staff cuts. Which had a ripple effect, as the interlibrary loan system slowed to a snail’s pace and the librarians were no longer able to help people with inquiries; if you’re a person with disabilities looking for information on the ADA to see if you’ve been wrongfully terminated, for example, a librarian probably can’t help you. Now neighboring Sonoma County is closing its libraries for two weeks in December.
In October, the BookMobile broke down.
The BookMobile is, well, a large bus filled with books. It brings books to rural areas in Mendocino County so that people who cannot otherwise access the library system can get books. They don’t do door to door delivery, but they’re usually very accommodating; if you have a friend to pick up books for you, for example, the BookMobile will release your holds to your friend with the understanding that the friend will bring the books by your house. Sometimes charitable groups will also send someone to pick up a stack of books at the BookMobile and then distribute the books to people in the community who wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain them. Fortunately, they got it repaired, but it felt like an ominous sign.
The library system needs more funds, or it’s going to collapse.
And I think that’s a bitter shame, because libraries, to me, are one of the greatest things ever. They truly provide free information to anyone who wants it. You can engage with the library at whatever level you want, and in a library which has the resources to support it, you can go far.
Losing books might not necessarily be life threatening, but it certainly contributes to a decline in quality of life.
This is a story which might not seem to have an immediate disability angle; after all, lots of folks beyond PWDs are being impacted by the library cuts (and other budget cuts), but I think about how liberating books are for me and I worry. I worry about people with disabilities who use the library to find information and resources they need. I worry about people with disabilities who can’t access books in other ways (finances, inaccessible spaces, etc). I worry about all of the Californians like me who need words to settle, to relax, to escape, to entertain, to enrich. I think about the fact that the library cuts are taking away a precious resource, and about the fact that while books might not be officially considered “assistive devices” in the eyes of the government, they totally can be. And I worry.
Budget cuts work in funny ways.