THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Of Bricks And Boomerangs: Social Worker's Tuitions And California's Prisons

Last week, I decided that a little stand had to be made, a brick had to be thrown at the wall. In this case it was the UC Regents, who were deciding on a tiny fee increase that shows the unbelievable shortsightedness in our collective scale of priorities. To save money the UC System was about to raise undergraduate tuition by 32 percent, in addition to hiking fees for professional degrees.

The logic on the latter seemed sound enough. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average California lawyer earns $143,850 a year, a physician earns $142,620 and a financial manger with an MBA from Anderson or Haas earns $122,480. Upping tuition on these guys seems understandable, as the logic goes: even if they have to take crushing loans they will be able to pay them off after only a short stint as wage slaves.

But this is where things get insidious. Lawyers, doctors and businessmen were only three of 44 professional programs that the Regents were threatening with Professional Differential Fees (PDFs). The lowest earning category of these programs are students of social work, who will now have to pay an additional $4,000 and $5,199 annually at UC Berkley and UCLA respectively. This will be at least a 50% increase on straight tuition for people who can hope to earn an average of $51,070 a year. This means that their indentured servitude to the banks will spool out for years, adding to the stress of trying to make the lives of the homeless, the hurting and the parentless all the more nerve wracking.

Worried that the stressed and overworked social workers I have come into contact with as a journalist covering the Department of Children and Family Services would be further strained, I marched myself down to the UC Regents meeting at UCLA. Hordes of angry undergrads threatened to bowl over a formidable crew of Sheriffs, UCLA Police and LAPD decked out in riot gear, their batons shining with the same white on black glint as their helmets. I used my press pass to get past the police line and walked into the large open room where the regents were meeting.

I put my name down on a list for public comment and stood when called. I followed an angry teacher's assistant who represented all the UC teacher's assistants as she cut into the Regents for the steep slashes to her and her colleagues' salaries.

She finished and I stepped to the mic and looked out. Before me on tables 20-people across sat a handful of Los Angeles County Supervisors, the white-haired Regents, a bank of media and the Speaker of the CA Assembly, Karen Bass, who I respect very much.

"My name is Daniel Heimpel," I said "I am a journalist, and if you excuse the expression, I'm going rogue." As I said this another disgruntled UC worker yelled, "you go rogue!" Emboldened, but with a shaking voice, I told the Regents exactly what I thought. That social workers are the front line in holding up this state and nation's creaking foster care system. That they are vital to our future in that they care for our most vulnerable children and that disincentivizing them from higher education in any way was an affront to the very tenants of a public institution.

There, my brick had been flung. But the wall pushed forward and the Regents implemented the PDFs, discouraging the most needed professionals in our society. It didn't surprise me; this is a culture wherein a Barista at Starbucks earns more than the attendant at a group home, where a salesman at Best Buy earns about as much as social worker with a graduate degree who made the poor economic choice of following their righteous intent to work with children who have endured abuse and neglect.

That night I went to an event put on by Generation for Change, a group of Yuppies that had been effective fundraisers for Obama, at a slightly pompous restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. The honored guest was the former, and assuredly future, California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown, with his hawkish features, wooed the crowd with his undeniable, off-the-cuff charisma.

He mixed this charm with truths not often enough said to the delight of the crowd. His best point was that while California used to spend as much as 16 percent of the budget on higher education, today that spending is on par with that of prisons. "It is one-to-one, and that is a tragedy," he said.

After Brown spoke I pulled the brick back out of my pocket and walked over. I congratulated him on his incumbent victory and told him that his point on prison spending was telling. It was then that I realized that the brick was a boomerang now coming full circle. I told Mr. Brown that some surveys showed as many as 70 percent of California inmates had spent some time in foster care. "If you want to get the numbers of inmates down spend money on foster kids." He looked at me and said that getting money for them is hard to do.

I nodded, that's the problem.