It was a hot summer day in Sacramento, California’s capital city, in 1965. The cool water of a local public pool beckoned, three blocks away. Alone, I strolled there, ambling past manicured lawns in a suburban burg next to the American River. This pool, part of the city of Sacramento Parks and Recreation, opened on Memorial Day and closed on Labor Day. My male friends and I, dressed in swim trunks, t-shirts and rubber flip flops, gathered outside the pool entrance. We traded insults. In no time, we paid the pool entrance fee, ambled through the mall dressing room and arrived outside on the brown cement deck. Jump in the cool water. Feel refreshed. We spent the day there, minus sun block, munching on Payday bars. This was the daily routine until the neighborhood public school opened in early September.
At that point, the pool’s dressing room became a city-run teen center, open every day but Sunday. Movable walls dividing the gender-separated dressing rooms shifted. The extra space made room for a pool table and ping pong table. My male friends and I enjoyed spending time in the teen center, criticizing each other, but also chatting with the city staff, a few years older. They were the legal adults in charge. We looked up to them. It was a learning experience with role models to emulate and imitate.
City parks and rec staff also opened and closed the playground at the local neighborhood school. They checked out sports equipment to my male friends and me after school ended. Want a basketball, football or tetherball? We knew who to see. We did that, day after day. For us, play was the thing. Adequately funded public parks made it happen. I took this policy to be a natural thing, a little like the sun rising in the morning, or clean water flowing from a faucet.
Little did I know that my experience of growing up in Sacramento as the postwar economy of shared prosperity was exceptional. It came to an end. A weatherman, as Bob Dylan sang, is not the only soul to see changed climate. The changed winds of public policy did not arrive via what author Naomi Klein terms “disaster capitalism1,” a shock such as Hurricane Katrina that devastated the Gulf Coast and led to the firing of all public school K-12 teachers in New Orleans.
Back in Sacramento, a gradual decline of tax funding for the public services such as parks and schools which undergirded my youth of year-round play unfolded. For example, my neighborhood’s city-run teen center at the public pool closed its doors years ago. The city parks and recreation playground at the local school has been gone for decades. Currently, the city pools open after Memorial Day and close before Labor Day. A few years ago, corporate donors bailed out the city pools with a cash infusion. A city budget gap had threatened pool closures. Before that, a national nonprofit took over two city pools.
Occasionally, I convey to younger adults how fully-funded public services brightened the lives of some Sacramento youth such as me back in the day. I am unsure if my good audience can wrap their heads around that past. It contrasts in ways big and small with the current moment.
We live in a new Gilded Age, an era of defunded public services, from parks to schools. Take public schools. In and out of Sacramento, there is a deficit of public funds for elementary, middle and high schools. Households bear this cost, ponying up fees big and small, in and out of view, when taxes do not cover the full price. This policy is known as austerity, kind of an odd word. Austerity cuts public spending on policies and programs that improve the general population’s quality of life. Austerity is the opposite of prosperity. I and my peers took the latter for granted, enjoying fully-funded parks and schools.
Austerity policies have widespread consent on both sides of the political aisle in Sacramento under the state Capitol dome. Just look at the California State University system, a big part of public higher education. Adjusting for inflation, the rise in prices for goods and services over time, a recent report2 from the California Faculty Association finds that the Golden State spends 41 percent less on a CSU student in 2015 than it did in 1985. State lawmakers in Sacramento drove the defunding of public higher education. In the meantime, California’s economy steadily grew. The Golden State has the sixth-largest economy3 on planet Earth in 2017. My takeaway? There is no shortage of wealth to fully fund public services.
This post is a part of our Lore series where we invite local writers to share their perspectives on the Capital in which they live. If you want to write about your State Capital please get in touch. We are especially interested in hearing from unique and underrepresented voices. I want to give a big thank you to Seth for sharing his story.
Sources used in this text
 You can learn more about the shock doctrine on her website: http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine
 Full report available here: http://www.calfac.org/equity-interrupted
 Rated “mostly true” by politifact, see the full details.
Images used in this text