San Francisco Chronicle: California must find new pathways toward a working economy

December 13, 2018 

Conventional indicators of economic well-being — the unemployment rate, the rate of economic growth and (despite some recent setbacks) the stock market — suggest that Americans are doing quite well. But the American people know that, for the average person, things are not getting better.

This is particularly true in the Bay Area, notwithstanding popular notions that the tech boom of recent decades has exonerated the region from the hardships facing other parts of the nation.

Many are struggling to hold down multiple jobs at low pay and with diminishing benefits. All are confronting soaring expenses; and most are facing retirement with precious little in the cupboard.

Recent research by San Jose-based Working Partnerships USA reveals that expanding automation, competition for scarce housing, and dubious business practices (such as “no cause” evictions of low-income renters and widespread job outsourcing to contingent workers and subcontractors) have made it increasingly hard for working families to make it.

Moreover, wealth and income gaps, especially between whites and various racial and ethnic minority groups, have increased markedly in recent years, further complicating circumstances. A recent report by, for example, found that just 400 extremely wealthy Americans now control as much combined wealth as more than 20 million black and Latino households.

Along with other national champions for the poor, leading Northern California progressive organizations such as the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, the California Budget and Policy Center and the Women’s Foundation of California have all documented the increasingly ominous impacts of these trends on average Californians relative to declining economic security and growing class divides.

These groups have recently advocated for new metrics to help inform our public policy-making in more precise and responsive ways; and more aggressive governmental and philanthropic support to address issues of basic economic security and mobility.

These are all things that concerned Northern Californians should be actively supporting if we are to course correct. But the underlying challenge we all face is ensuring that we do not merely resort to advocating for marginal or incremental changes in approach that might make us feel better about our circumstances for a minute, but in the end not save us from the pathway of continuing stagnation.

That is to say the kind of change Bay Area residents need to prioritize is not merely incidental or incremental. Given the extant and growing stresses we have seen develop in recent years relative to our economy and jobs base, our families and communities, and our environment, we simply don’t have time for piecemeal fixes.

What is required to address the increasingly daunting scale of the challenges we face are some fundamentally new approaches to building economic security for all.

Gratefully, recent polling by the Public Policy Institute of California reveals that most Californians are ready for this challenge. Owing largely to concerns about the next generation’s waning economic prospects, that research shows a majority of Californians supporting major new investments leading to universal health care and tuition-free community college. But even more will be needed. This means:

Continuing efforts to lead the national living-wage campaign that seeks to make $15 the new standard for hourly wage-earners, as cities like San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose have done (or committed to doing) in recent years. It just should not be possible to be gainfully employed in America while at the same time living in poverty.

Ramping up efforts by Bay Area residents to concentrate more of their buying and investments in locally and regionally owned businesses, rather then national corporate chains; and promoting more widespread development of social- and worker-owned enterprises such as those being supported by Bay Area philanthropic organizations such as the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF) and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).

Creating employment opportunities for the region’s hardest-to-employ workers (such as formerly homeless or incarcerated individuals) in fields as wide-ranging as waste recycling, food service and home health care.

As we contemplate still other ways we can all help to encourage a more inclusive and just economy, it is also vital for concerned Bay Area residents to support emerging proposals designed to expand economic security and prosperity-sharing through new asset building programs for low- and moderate-income households.

Proposals for the public sector to promote baby bonds (a program where the federal, state or local government would open an asset-building account for each baby with $500 to $50,000, depending on family economic status) and other tax-deferred savings plans that would help economically challenged individuals accumulate capital for later investment in education and training, a new home, a business startup or retirement savings are most worthy of expanded public support; and California should be leading such efforts.

It is crucial that Bay Area leaders and residents join forces to dramatically renew opportunities for upward mobility and economic security across our state. Indeed, moving more intentionally in this direction will be essential if California is to build a working economy for the future and remain a global leader in commerce and culture.

Henry A.J. Ramos is a former member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. His book, “Democracy & The Next American Economy,” is forthcoming in early 2019 from Arte Público Press.