During the post-Depression late 1930s, my father and uncle left New York and came to California via the still-famous Route 66. They boarded a train to Chicago, then bought a used car and drove the 2,500 miles through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before finally arriving in Santa Monica.
My father quickly got a job at North American Aviation; my uncle, at Time magazine. They were among the thousands who came to California because the Golden State promised unlimited opportunity and a paradise lifestyle that easterners couldn’t envision. Endless sunny days, life along the Pacific Ocean and convertibles were beyond New Yorker’s most vivid imaginations. Because my father and uncle had jobs with futures, they bought homes, had families and joined the expanding middle class, their friend and relatives back home envied their standard of living.
Today, a reverse migration from California has taken hold. A Manhattan Institute 2012 study found that between 1990 and 2010, California’s out-migration was the nation’s highest. Nearly 3.4 million residents (including me) left California. Those departures slashed 80 percent of the domestic in-migration gains California had made during the preceding three decades.
In his National Review essay, Tony Senik noted that when those totals are considered as a percentage of overall population, California ranks with the largest people exporters: New York, Michigan, Illinois and New Jersey. Senik call those states “public sector basket cases,” a description with which I wholeheartedly concur.
Unlike my father, who had a welcoming business community when he came to California, the fate of recent arrivals in terms of landing a job is uncertain, at best. With every passing year, fewer companies call California home. From 1994 to 2008, California lost 124,000 more jobs to other states than it gained. Many of those lost jobs are payroll positions that give wage-earners at least a chance to buy expensive real estate or put their children in private schools. For others who toil for hourly wages, they’re at risk.
How California went from where it was more than half a century ago to where it is today has many explanations. Everyone knows that times and attitudes change. But how such a radical transformation occurred in California needs to be understood.
Senik, a former George W. Bush speech writer, offered the best answer. His theory, and again one that I support, is that California’s low-income voters have over the years developed a curious unwritten partnership with high-income voters that, between both, have squeezed out the middle class. That is, the liberal super-rich support political candidates who favor more entitlements for the less fortunate. In turn, the poor also vote for those who promise more benefits. Consequently, nothing is left for the middle.
About 24 percent of Californians live below the poverty line.
As Senik summarizes, California is governed by elites, for the elites, and they are increasingly the few remaining who can afford to live in the state.
Over the years, many analysts have wrongly predicted that California is on its last legs. They have been consistently wrong. And they may still be wrong. California has dodged a lot of bullets. Weathering the storm of a vanishing middle class may prove to be California’s biggest challenge.
Joe Guzzardi is a California native who worked at the Lodi Unified School District until 2008. He now lives in Pittsburgh. Contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org.