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California is a land of untold opulence. Hollywood’s glitter dazzles the gawking masses, while the world’s most profitable companies, Google, Apple, and Facebook, funnel cash into the Golden State from every corner of the earth. And yet California is also desperately poor. One-in-five Californians live in poverty, the state’s income inequality is worse than Mexico’s, and untold thousands live on the streets. California is a dystopia.
How can so much wealth and poverty coexist? This is the California paradox. It was not always this way. California used to be home to America’s largest and most affluent middle class. Now it is a playground for the rich and a prison for the poor. How did the Golden State become America’s poverty capital?
Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Official Poverty Measure, California’s poverty rate hovers around 15 percent. But this figure is misleading: the Census Bureau measures poverty relative to a uniform national standard, which doesn’t account for differences in living costs between states—the cost of taxes, housing, and healthcare are higher in California than in Oklahoma, for example.
Accounting for these differences reveals that California’s real poverty rate is 20.6 percent—the highest in America. This is nearly twice the national average of 12.7 percent.
Many Californians live in abject poverty. In fact, one-quarter of all homeless Americans live in California, according to a recent report from the New York Times:
More than one-quarter of the total homeless population nationwide lives in California, roughly 114,000. The vast majority are “unsheltered”—a more bureaucratic term to describe the thousands living on the streets, under freeways and tucked into grassy fields and parks in cities all around the state.
This figure does not account for the many thousands more who are temporarily homeless during a given year, nor does it include people living in rundown tenements without access to modern amenities.
Finally, income inequality in California is the second-highest in America, behind only New York. In fact, if California were an independent country, it would be the 17th most unequal country on earth, nestled comfortably between Honduras and Guatemala. Mexico is slightly more egalitarian.
As it happens, California is far more unequal than the “social democracies” it emulates: Canada is the 111th most unequal nation, while Norway is far down the list at number 153 (out of 176 countries). In terms of income inequality, California has more in common with banana republics than with other “social democracies.” This is exceedingly ironic, and it speaks to socialism’s failure in California.
How California’s Big Government Causes Poverty
High taxes, excessive regulations, and a lavish welfare state—these are the standard explanations for California’s poverty epidemic. They have some merit. For example, California has both the highest personal income tax rate and the highest sales tax in America. Politifact reports:
California has the highest top tier income tax and the highest state sales tax in the nation . . . California’s top tier income tax rate is the highest in the nation at 13.3 percent . . . everyone who lives here or visits pays California’s highest-in-the-nation sales tax rate of 7.25 percent.
While few Californians actually pay the top marginal income tax rate, everyone pays the sales tax. This means that people who spend a higher proportion of their income on consumables like gasoline or food, i.e., the working class, are hurt the most by sales taxes. Sales taxes are inherently regressive and make life more expensive for those who can least afford it.
Not only are California’s taxes high, but successive “progressive” governments have swamped the state in a sea of red tape. Onerous regulations cripple small businesses and retard economic growth. Kerry Jackson, a fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, gives a few specific examples of how excessive government regulation hurts California’s poor. He writes in a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times:
Extensive environmental regulations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions make energy more expensive, also hurting the poor. By some estimates, California energy costs are as much as 50% higher than the national average. Jonathan A. Lesser of Continental Economics, author of a 2015 Manhattan Institute study, “Less Carbon, Higher Prices,” found that “in 2012, nearly 1 million California households faced . . . energy expenditures exceeding 10% of household income. In certain California counties, the rate of energy poverty was as high as 15% of all households.
Some government regulation is necessary and even desirable, but most of California’s regulation goes beyond that. There is virtue in governing with a “light touch” but this concept is lost on California’s Democrat-controlled government.
Finally, California’s welfare state is, perhaps paradoxically, a source of poverty in the state. Market Watch notes that California’s welfare state is the most generous in America—part of this is because California is large, but mostly it’s because California spends more per capita on welfare than other states. In fact, the Orange Country Register reports that California’s social safety net is comparable in scale to those found in Europe:
In California a mother with two children under the age of 5 who participates in these major welfare programs—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), housing assistance, home energy assistance, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children—would receive a benefits package worth $30,828 per year.
. . . [similar] benefits in Europe ranged from $38,588 per year in Denmark to just $1,112 in Romania. The California benefits package is higher than in well-known welfare states as France ($17,324), Germany ($23,257) and even Sweden ($22,111).
But doesn’t a welfare state help the poor? Ideally, yes—but reality is messy. The welfare state presents three main problems. First, it incentivizes poverty by rewarding the poor with government handouts, handouts that are often far more valuable than a job. This can be ameliorated to some degree by imposing work requirements on welfare recipients, but in practice, such requirements are rarely imposed, and even more rarely enforced.
Second, welfare states are expensive: this means higher taxes and therefore slower economic growth and fewer job opportunities for everyone—including the poor. The simple fact is this: working people don’t need welfare. Therefore, the socialists’ goal should be to create jobs rather than care for the jobless. Why this eludes the Left is a mystery to me.
Finally, welfare states are magnets for the poor. Whether through domestic migration or foreign immigration, poor people flock to places with generous welfare benefits. This is logical from the recipient’s perspective but makes little sense from the taxpayer’s. Welfare states attract people who want welfare, and this is the primary reason why socialism and open borders are fundamentally incompatible.
Exploring the Deeper Cause of California’s Poverty
High taxes, oppressive regulations, and socialism undoubtedly hurt California’s economy, but they are just the surface effects of a deeper cause. In reality, it is immigration that is primarily to blame for California’s abnormally high poverty level.
Since 1960 California’s population exploded from 15.9 to 39 million people. The growth was almost entirely due to immigration—many people came from other states but the majority came from abroad. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that 10 million immigrants currently reside in California. This works out to 26 percent of the state’s population.
This figure includes 2.4 million illegal aliens, although a recent Yale University study suggests that the true number of aliens is at least double that. Modifying the initial figure implies that nearly one-in-three Californians is an immigrant. This is not to disparage California’s immigrant population—my own mother is an immigrant—but it’s madness to deny that such a large influx of people has changed California’s society and economy.
Important for our purposes is the fact that immigrants vote Democrat by a ratio higher than 2:1, according to a report from the Center for Immigration Studies. In California, immigration has increased the pool of likely Democrat voters by nearly 5 million people, compared to just 2.4 million additional likely Republican voters. Not only does this almost guarantee Democratic victories, it also shifts California’s political midpoint to the left. This means that to remain competitive in elections, the Republicans must abandon or soften many core positions so as to cater to the new center.
California became a Democratic stronghold not because Californians became socialists, but because millions of socialists moved there. Immigration turned California blue.
California is America in 20 Years
For decades, the adage went: As California goes, so goes the nation. In the past this was a message of hope; now it is a stark warning. Today, California is plagued with poverty and homelessness, and mired in high taxes and pointless regulations. It is a place of extremes, where opulent palaces overlook tent cities and crumbling slums. This is America’s future if nothing happens to stop it.
Right now America is home to some 45.6 million immigrants—an all-time high—with 1.5 million people arriving every year. On top of that, between 12 million and 20 million people live in the United States illegally. This is not to disparage legal immigrants, but Americans must acknowledge the political, social, and economic consequences of mass immigration.
Consider that the last presidential election Democrats won without immigrant voters was that of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 (excluding Ross Perot’s vote-splitting antics in 1992). Immigration turned California blue, and will turn America blue, too, unless Congress reforms our broken immigration system.