Influencers Opinion

Where’s California’s middle class? Influencers say income disparity must be addressed

A look at jobs and economic growth in the state of California

A selection of 101 California Influencers are answering questions critical to the state's future. This week's topic is jobs and economic growth.
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A selection of 101 California Influencers are answering questions critical to the state's future. This week's topic is jobs and economic growth.

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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We used to have a middle class in California.

But years of economic and technological upheaval have created an unmet demand for new job skills required for high-paying jobs, which has led to tremendous growth in income disparity among state workers. The challenge now is to figure out how to avoid becoming home for only the very rich and the very poor.

“California is the fifth-largest economy in the world … But we face significant headwinds when it comes to economic mobility,” said Lenny Mendonca, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s chief economic and business adviser. “Our workers can’t be expected to bear the burden of this transition alone, nor the associated costs.”

Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, frames the challenge even more starkly.

“Since 1980, average worker productivity in California has gone up roughly 90 percent while real median wages have flat-lined,” Pastor said. “So it’s not just a question of creating better jobs, but ensuring that employees get a fair return on their efforts in those new jobs.”

But former State Controller Steve Westly pointed out that there are large numbers of well-paying jobs that are left unfilled because of a lack of trained workers.

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“For one of the first times in history there are more unfilled jobs in America (6.7 million) than available workers to fill them (6.4 million). And many of these jobs are highly paid,” Westly said. “The challenge is to provide our workforce with the skills they need to be job ready in the 21st Century.”

Donna Lucas, president and CEO of Lucas Public Affairs, called for better coordination between the state’s educators and job creators.

“The private sector identifies years in advance what their workforce needs will be; they should work with institutions of higher learning … to develop that workforce,” said Lucas, who credited California’s community colleges for collaborative efforts with state employers. “We need to take a forward-thinking, demand-oriented approach – what are the industries and jobs that will drive the global economy over the next century? And what are the skills and training needed for those jobs?”

Luisa Blanco Raynal of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, pointed to the health care sector as an opportunity for increased coordination, citing data showing that health-related jobs are among the highest paying in the state.

“Specific programs that encourage individuals to get a degree that specifically meets the needs of the healthcare and medical sectors would be beneficial for the labor force in California,” said Raynal, who recommended incentives such as scholarships, loans and debt forgiveness.

In addition to longer-term workforce preparation efforts, many of the California Influencers also advocated for more immediate measures.

“Low wages, no security, no retirement, no set schedule – these are the jobs produced when workers have so little power and corporations have so much,” warned Caitlin Vega, legislative director for the California Labor Federation. “To rebuild our middle-class, we must focus on job quality, directing tax credits and public subsidies only to companies that offer fair wages, healthcare and retirement.”

California Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Jennifer Barrera offered a markedly different prescription. In addition to emphasizing the need for improved education and job training, Barrera stressed the importance of reducing financial burdens on business.

“(We need to) keep costs low, including taxes and litigation, so that employers have resources to invest in innovation and their employees, enabling the creation of higher wage jobs,” Barrera said.

Recognizing the ongoing tensions between business and labor, Democratic consultant David Townsend of TCT Public Affairs recommended a potential roadmap for peace.

“Perhaps the new Governor would create a Task Force/Commission of representatives of these groups to come together, lay down their weapons … and find a common bold solution where everyone loses a little so that everyone can win,” Townsend proposed. “Lacking this type of leadership, the old battles will continue to be waged in the Legislature … and will get nowhere.”

Debbie Mesloh, president of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, called for lawmakers to “promote and enact policies to unleash the full potential of women.”

“Women are now the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households … However, our current policies are not conducive to women staying in the workforce, either because it does not make economic sense or they must choose between work and family, said Mesloh, who endorsed expansion of the state’s Paid Family Leave program. “When we lift up women, we lift up families and our communities.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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