Why are California Democrats so hard on our working poor?
CLASS WARRIOR: Gov. Brown lobbied state Senate Democrats to approve a $5-billion-a-year boost in gas and vehicle taxes to pay for major road repairs. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
When Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown enters his sixteenth year as governor of California this January, he will likely ask his magic mirror which is the bluest state of them all. The mirror will reply “California. It’s so obvious, why do you even ask, you silly governor?”
Democrats in Sacramento hold more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the legislature, and no Republican has won a statewide office since 2006. Although Jerry Brown governed in split terms (1974-1982 and 2010-2018), the legislature was majority Democrat long before Brown took office. Since then, Republicans have held a majority of the Assembly for only two years, and they never controlled the Senate. That’s one-party dominance.
To prove their power, Democrats recently adopted a $5 billion gas tax increase, declared California a “sanctuary state” in defiance of the Republican president, and extended the unique cap-and-trade law, which requires California business to pay billions more in taxes. They did it, they acknowledged, in order to display California’s leadership, as a lesson to other states in how to control the global climate.
And they did all this after making permanent the formerly “temporary” highest personal income tax rate in the nation.
The mirror does not lie; California is the bluest state of them all. Jerry Brown should be proud.
Why, then, in this bluest of states does the little guy suffer so much? The Democrats’ narrative is, and has always been, that they are the champions for the underprivileged. Yet California has the highest poverty rate, the highest homeless rate, the worst schools for underprivileged kids, the worst conditions for working-class commuters, and the least opportunity for the working class of any state in the nation. What gives?
According to the United States Census, when the actual cost of living here is taken into account, California has the highest poverty in the nation—20.6% in 2016. California leads the nation in homelessness with 118,142, according to HUD’s 2016 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report. Although New York is a close second at 86,352, the next three in line are far behind those two—Florida (33,559), Washington (20,827) and Massachusetts (19,608). With all this poverty, it should be no surprise that California has the highest number of people on welfare, but according to the San Diego Union Tribune, some may be surprised to learn that 34% of the nation’s welfare recipients live in California, while only 12% of the U.S. population lives here.
Not only are there more poor people in California, but life is harder on the poor and working class here than in other states. Several have pointed out that energy costs in California are much higher than in any other state, and the burden of these high costs falls disproportionately on the poor and working class. Energy for transportation is more expensive than other states not only because of environmental policies handed down by Sacramento but also because of heavy taxation on gasoline. After adopting a $5 billion gas tax increase this year, Sacramento renewed cap-and-trade, which will impose its heavy taxes on business and will be passed on to consumers of a variety of products, including gasoline. These increasing costs have not yet been fully felt at the pump, but when they are, they will be regressive—disproportionally impactful on the poor and working class. This is because this demographic is compelled to commute longer distances by reason of policies that have made housing in California among the most expensive in the nation. Since the wealthy may choose where they live, they may commute less, costing them less at the pump.
There are other ways that high-energy costs brought on by California’s blue state policies hurt the poor. For example, the poor tend to use energy less efficiently than the wealthy, and they use a larger percentage of their incomes for energy, often causing what is called “energy poverty,” where a family must choose between heating their home and eating a nourishing meal.
In a groundbreaking 2015 study, Jonathan Lesser of the Manhattan Institute demonstrated that California is exacerbating this problem through poor choices in its energy, environmental and housing policies.
First, as others have pointed out, energy prices in California are the highest in the nation and continue to rise due to single-focus policies that can be reversed if Sacramento chooses to change them. Second, this rise in energy cost has a disproportionate impact on certain counties such as California’s inland and Central Valley regions because summer electricity consumption is highest there. The impact of this energy tax is regressive, Lesser says, because household incomes in those regions are the lowest; in other words, the poor people live in the most unpleasant places, where air conditioning is needed the most. The more pleasant places, along California’s coast, are reserved for the wealthy through housing policies that keep prices sky high. Sacramento could change those policies if they wished, but very few new homes, relatively speaking, have been built in the most desired areas since Jerry Brown first became governor. Third, according to Lesser, as a consequence of these policies, “n 2012, nearly 1 million California households faced ‘energy poverty’,” and this figure will most certainly go up unless something is done to change the upward trend in energy pricing crossing with the upward trend in energy use by the poor. Lesser provides specific suggestions for policy changes, but none were implemented by Sacramento.
Public education is another area that the poor and working class depend upon more than other segments of the population. In California, you are stuck with the school in your zip code, but for people of means, there is always private school. A recent report ranked California tenth worst in the nation overall in public school performance. When we focus on the schools most likely to be charged with educating California’s poor and working class, however, we quickly learn that the achievement gap remains a living misery for our state’s poor. The recently released Assessment of Student Performance and Progress provides only two performance scores of substance, English and language arts (which means knowing how to read) and math. Scores are divided into four categories, two that meet or exceed acceptable standards and two that do not. In the inner cities where public schools are operated by the Oakland, Los Angeles and Santa Ana Unified School Districts, the following percentage of students met or exceeded the standard for language arts, respectively: 31.86%, 38.55% and 27.80%. In that same order, students meeting or exceeding the standard for math were 25.50%, 29.86% and 22.41%. So our bluest state does not care enough to teach even 60% of our poorest kids how to read or 70% to do math.
So do Republicans have the right to be smug? No way. Republicans have let down the poor just as much as Democrats in Sacramento because they have done nothing to save them. It is not too late for the GOP, however. It is time to step up and become champions of the poor and working class.
Where has the GOP been? Instead of stepping up as champions for the poor, who have been miserable under blue state policies for a very long time, Republicans spend all their time fighting among themselves about any issue they disagree about. A key requirement for admission to the GOP seems to be that one must have a talent for being distracted by issues that divide the party at the expense of issues that could unite it. In this case, the misery of the poor and working class has essentially been ignored by Republicans even though free market policies are ideally suited as the best solution to the oppressive policies that have been in place for so long. Not only would this issue unite the party, but it would provide the GOP an opportunity to do something good in the process.
Here is my solution for Republicans: forget about the rich. They can take care of themselves. And stop fighting. If you have a serious disagreement, table the issue, and campaign on something you agree on. Unfurl a banner that says, “I AM THE CHAMPION OF THE POOR AND WORKING CLASS.” Then get to work to prove it because no one will believe you at first. The poor and working class need a champion; Democrats so far have not been able to reverse course. Come on, GOP, find your heart.
Robert Loewen is chairman of the board of the California Policy Center.
E.g. http://www.ocregister.com/2017/07/13/energy-costs-making-california-unaffordable-for-too-many/ ; http://www.nationalreview.com/article/421869/californias-energy-policies-poor-are-hit-hardest-robert-bryce ; http://capitolweekly.net/california-poverty-high-costs/ ;
E.g. http://www.reimaginerpe.org/node/965 ; https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/energy-poverty-low-income-households/486197/ ;
Arthur C. Brooks, The Conservative Heart, How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. According to Brooks, conservatives are natural champions of the poor when they advocate free market principles; he does not believe that conservatives need to become “center-left” in order to advocate for the poor and working class.