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By Lenny Mendonca and Pete Weber, Special to CALmatters

In California, jobs are being created, unemployment is low, housing prices are robust, and many people are doing well.

The California economy is the envy of the world. But things are far from perfect, as the 18 million Californians who live in or near poverty can attest. That’s a number that would comprise the nation’s fifth largest state.

California’s middle class has declined from 60 percent of the population in 1980, the year we elected Ronald Reagan as president to 48 percent today.

If you were a young adult in 1980, you could reasonably expect to be able to buy a home in the neighborhood where you were raised.

Today?

Not so much.

The fundamental challenge that clouds the future of the Golden State is the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots. The issue of income inequality is holding California back, and we need to act.

And we may be ready to do that.

An ambitious legislative plan to end child poverty is underway, as a result of the passage of Assembly Bill 1520. The bill creates the Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Task Force.

California Forward, which manages the California Economic Summit, has created recommendations for reviving the California Dream and moving more Californians toward an equitable, sustainable and prosperous Golden State. We believe our ideas can help create meaningful change as Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom and the new Legislature take office:

  • The state needs a comprehensive strategy for growing quality jobs and developing a skilled workforce. We need to create one million more living wage jobs by expanding programs that prepare workers for our fast-changing economy.
  • We must increase the supply of reasonably priced housing.
  • We must ensure there are adequate water supplies for agriculture and all regions of the state.
  • We must prepare California’s children for a changing world and workplace. California needs to revise the iconic Master Plan for Higher Education to address the needs of the 21st  century.
  • The safety net needs to be transformed to better meet basic needs and more effectively lift those who can achieve financial independence.

Shortcomings in our education system are having a significant impact on poverty. Out of 1,000 California 9th graders, only 305 get a four-year college degree. We need a system that better aligns and leverages our pre-K system, our K-12 system and our tripartite system of higher education to get Californians ready for kindergarten, through college and re-skilled when necessary to keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of our economy.

Pilot projects across California provide promising results and high returns on taxpayer investment and are worthy of being scaled up to reach more people.

Promise Neighborhoods, Sonoma’s Upstream Investments and Fresno’s Bridge Academies are three examples. Each is a nonprofit that seeks to help people rise out of poverty by, for example, offering parents tips on how to approach job interviews or get health care for their kids.

We should create a Partnership to End Poverty—a state-county collaborative that would allow the state to work with willing counties to identify and nurture new approaches to help adults secure living wage jobs with a future. It also would document and advocate for the changes necessary, so these new models can be used across the state.

When California Forward’s California Economic Summit annual meeting is held in Santa Rosa starting Thursday, the issue of upward mobility will be front and center. The summit, which attracts hundreds of private and public sector leaders from California’s diverse regions, has been amplifying the need for action on this issue for the past several years.

We will be discussing setting goals consistent with California values at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Rosa Thursday and Friday. Summit attendees will support legislation defining tangible metrics for upward mobility—and establishing a system—one we call the California Dream Index—for tracking progress.

We will also continue to support and promote ongoing initiatives to close gaps in skilled workers, livable communities and well-paying jobs.

Upward mobility is a growing and complicated crisis and it’s not going to be an easy fix.

But it’s a task well worth undertaking. Join us.


Lenny Mendonca, [email protected], and Pete Weber, [email protected], are co-chairs of the California Forward Leadership Council. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.