Debtor State: The Economic and
Social Crises of the 1990s
Judy R. graduated from social work school in 1986 with a master's degree in social work and a deep commitment to work with the homeless. She accepted a low-paying job as coordinator of social services in a North Philadelphia homeless shelter. She loved her work with the homeless women and children who crowded her facility: finding needed entitlements, working with a mothers' support group, watching joy and hope fill the faces of families as they learned they would soon be moving to permanent housing.
Judy R. loved her work until the summer of 1990, that is, for at the end of the summer the city of Philadelphia, confronted with a $206 million deficit and a bond rating so poor that it could no longer sell its municipal bonds, withdrew almost all funding for homeless shelter facilities across the city (Hinds 1990a, 1990b). Even though the homeless population of Philadelphia continued to expand, Judy R. was out of a job.
Across the nation in the rural California county of Butte, Dorothy S., a native of Oroville, works as a Department of Social Services employee, handling cases of the one in six county residents who receive some form of welfare assistance. The size of its welfare load, comprised of chronically unemployed, unskilled workers, welfare recipients, and retirees on fixed incomes, is so large that 57 percent of the county budget goes to some form of social service. However, because the 185,000-person county, nestled in the center of the state about sixty miles from Sacramento, faces a deficit of $14.1 million in