Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews says that while much of California has prospered in recent decades, Los Angeles has floundered. The coronavirus pandemic has put a microscope to LA’s shortcomings, with case numbers and deaths among the region’s poorest residents much higher than in other places. Mathews says that what ails LA – stagnant wages, lack of economic mobility and racial inequities — are part of a larger American failure, but the symptoms are especially severe here. If California wants to flourish, Mathews says it will have to repair what’s wrong with its biggest city and county.
Read Mathews’ column below:
California has a big problem: It’s called Los Angeles.
We, Californians, love to lambaste wealthy San Francisco and its self-parodying progressivism. But it’s actually LA County—home to one in four Californians—that undermines our state the most.
California as a whole can’t prosper if its biggest, most diverse metropolis flounders. Since the early 1990s recession, LA has been a drag on California’s economic growth. LA hasn’t matched California’s gains in education, health, or jobs. And Los Angeles has been the biggest driver of rising inequality across the state.
LA is also where California lost the pandemic. The county of 10 million has one-third of the state’s COVID cases and 40% of the deaths. LA’s outsized coronavirus failures had statewide impact. California officials created public confusion as they sought, in vain, to produce COVID guidance that could fit small counties with few cases and California's largest county, a virus hotspot. And the LA Unified School District and its teachers’ union used their political muscle to delay Gov. Gavin Newsom’s efforts to reopen schools not just in LA, but statewide.
In this context, it made sense that Newsom broke with precedent and held this year’s State of the State speech in Dodger Stadium, rather than in the Capitol in Sacramento. If LA doesn’t control the virus, and rebound from the pandemic’s economic and educational damage, the state will be in deep trouble — and Newsom could be recalled later this year.
But the stakes of getting it right in Los Angeles extend beyond the fates of the governor or the state. LA’s struggles point to larger American failures to make prosperity equitable, and provide the disadvantaged with a foundation for building higher-wage employment, and family wealth.
As outlined in a 2020 report, “No Going Back LA,” from the Committee for Greater LA, Los Angeles is on this struggle’s front lines because it experienced major demographic change before the rest of the U.S. The county’s share of people of color has risen from 47% in 1980 to 73% today. During the same time, LA lost middle class jobs, and wages stagnated. Systemic racial disparities cost Los Angeles $300 billion-plus annually in GDP, according to USC’s Equity Research Institute.
Ending disparities is an epic task of integration — connecting people, opportunities, schools, businesses, health care, and policies to keep people from falling behind. But LA, for all its success creating culture that connects the world, is rotten at integrating itself.
This problem is not new. In 1946, journalist and lawyer Carey McWilliams wrote that Los Angeles is “chronically unable to integrate its population.” He observed, “There is something disturbing about this corner of America, a sinister suggestion of transience. There is a quality, hostile to men in the very earth and air here.”
That prose mirrors the 21st century conclusions of the UCLA scholar Michael Storper, who studied the different economic trajectories of the Bay Area and LA. In 1970, those two big regional economies were at parity. Now the Bay Area is 30% richer than LA
Why? Because Bay Area people and institutions networked and collaboratively built Silicon Valley. But LA didn’t do the same — its communities and institutions remained separate and siloed. Among the results: Wages for LA’s lowest-paid workers declined by 25% since 1979, even as housing costs soared.
Pre-pandemic, LA defenders could dismiss criticism by pointing to declining crime, rising graduation rates, or ambitious plans to fight homelessness. But the coronavirus made LA’s deeper problems undeniable. COVID followed the map of LA’s inequality, killing at higher rates in our most overcrowded and underserved communities.
The big question now is whether LA can connect itself and build new supportive systems for its people. To that end, the “No Going Back LA” report is promising, as a collaboration of the Committee for Greater LA and USC and UCLA scholars. The report’s ideas include stronger protections for undocumented Angelenos, a regional housing strategy, and making high-speed internet a civil right.
Transforming LA from segregated patchwork into integrated whole will require the expertise and support of the rest of California. The politics of assisting our biggest county won’t be easy. But California needs to save LA, so it can save itself.