The Metamorphosis

Photo by Jack GouldNearly lost in the clamor over the presidential election was this news item: on Nov. 22, the U.S. Census Bureau announced an 89 percent increase in the number of Orange County children living in poverty. According to the agency, more than 65,000 local kids lived in Third World conditions in 1989. In less than a decade—by 1997, the latest year for which figures are available—that number had nearly doubled to a whopping 123,692.

Lisa Castaneda, executive director of the Shelter and Hunger Partnership of Orange County, was blunt in her assessment. She told The Orange County Register's Teri Sforza, “It's heart-wrenching. It affects their development, their health and their education. Especially when they're on the streets or on the verge of homelessness. You can't grow and be strengthened if you're always in crisis.”

Local political and business leaders love to portray Orange County life as nothing less than a charity dinner at the Ritz, million-dollar yachts bobbing in Newport Harbor, and palm-tree-lined neighborhoods overlooking the Pacific. But it is an ugly, unavoidable fact that the combined number of adults and kids trying to survive on a measly couple of bucks a day now tops 300,000. For those of you angry, well-to-do white males threatening violent revolution over dimpled chads, that is more than enough human beings to fill the massive Rose Bowl three times.

But who's counting? And worse, who cares? Apparently not John Moorlach, Orange County's treasurer. Just two days after the gut-wrenching census report, Moorlach—an ultraconservative Costa Mesa Republican—wrote a Register opinion column that argued for less government spending on health care for the poor. He described the triumphant Nov. 7 Measure H's plan to spend 80 percent of tobacco-litigation-settlement funds on medical care for the poor as “extreme.” He wanted 40 percent of the money to further supplement county bankruptcy-debt payments. He abhors the idea that community clinics—which he dismisses as a “niche area”—will have additional funds to help treat injured or sick indigent citizens.

“We have needs for a new juvenile hall, jail expansion, [and jumping on the news of the day from Florida] voting-system replacement, etc.,” wrote Moorlach.

Moorlach is a decent, well-intentioned if Reaganesque fellow. His interest in good government and his background in finance helped him predict the 1994 bankruptcy. Here, then, is his ideological blind spot: the Dickensian medical crisis facing our poorest neighbors—and therefore, all of us. The tobacco-settlement funds can help alleviate, if only on a small scale, that crisis. But Moorlach and his brethren in the Orange County Republican Party would rather shower public funds on poor kids only when it comes time to lock them up in the state's growing prison system.

It is ironic that Republicans nationwide are demanding that Democrats abandon any legal challenge to Florida's presidential vote count. Here in Orange County, Republicans like Moorlach actively encourage the Board of Supervisors to challenge in court Measure H's impressive victory at the ballot box, where it passed with 65 percent of the vote. Asks Moorlach, “Should [Measure H] be implemented at all? . . . It appears only prudent to determine if Measure H is constitutional.”

But this is Orange County, and irony—not computer chips or (God knows) oranges—is our chief export. Moorlach received applause last month while addressing Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. His theme: our society has become too litigious.

Moorlach obviously has the ear of a majority of the Board of Supervisors. Behind the scenes, they've been plotting ways to thwart the health-care-spending decision of the voters. County counsel Lawrence Watson—who must believe the public is nothing but gullible—claims to feel so passionate about the matter that, acting as a private citizen, he'll file a lawsuit to block Measure H. His bosses on the Board of Supervisors, he swears, have nothing to do with this—though he'll argue that the constitutional rights of those supervisors were trampled when voters dictated how they wanted the tobacco-settlement money spent. In this season of thanksgiving and charity, the poor may rightly pray that God spares them such civic-mindedness and self-sacrifice in a bureaucrat.

Of course, nobody knows for certain how the wrangling among comfortable, fully insured bureaucrats and politicians will play out. What is certain is that the plight of the 300,000 poverty-stricken kids and adults now living in Orange County won't be a factor in their calculations. It was Moorlach in his Register editorial who—in what was surely a rare moment of callousness—cautioned the supervisors not to be “complicit” in spending on health care for the poor. Better, one presumes, to worry about the upset stomachs, the heartburn and the fat wallets wounding the keisters of the county's rich.

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