Opinion: Columnists

Conn Carroll: California becoming a feudal society

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Opinion,Conn Carroll,Columnists,Politics Digest

For most of its history, California has occupied a special place in the mind of most Americans. From the height of the Gold Rush through the 1980s, California's warm weather and booming economy drew enterprising, educated and talented immigrants from across the country. California was the melting pot of America's melting pot, leading all states in the number of residents who were born in other U.S. states.

As I wrote in The Washington Examiner's "California in Crisis" series last week, that California is dead and gone. According to a 2012 University of Southern California study on state demographics, you have to go back to the early 1990s to find a time when more Americans were moving to California than leaving it for other states. Thanks to high housing prices and a weak job market, California is now a net exporter of U.S. citizens to other states.

As a result of this shift, native Californians became a majority of the state's population only in the last decade. Their numbers will continue to rise. And since foreign immigration is also expected to level off, the report predicts growth will occur "almost all among native Californians, many but not all of whom are the children of immigrants."

Unfortunately for California, this local-born population is not increasing fast enough to replace the disappearing immigration. The number of Californians under age 18 will virtually halt over the next 20 years, while population growth among those 65 and older will quadruple. The current ratio of one senior for every five working-age residents will become a 3-to-10 ratio by 2020, and 4-to-10 by 2030.

If California's new native-born population was particularly wealthy or well-educated, this demographic imbalance might not be such a big problem. But it is not. And this will severely strain California's generous welfare state.

Even before the Great Recession, California already suffered from some of the highest levels of income inequality in the nation. And according to recent Public Policy Institute of California study, the recent downturn only exacerbated the problem. "Compared to the rest of the country, California experienced larger declines in income at the bottom of the distribution and smaller declines at the top -- leading to the largest gap between upper and lower incomes in at least 30 years," PPIC reported.

Worse, a 2012 California Budget Project study found that what little job recovery has occurred in the state has been confined to the low-skill sector. The employment rate for prime-working-age Californians with a bachelor's degree or higher has been flat since the recovery began, whereas those with just a high school diploma and those without one have both seen job gains. To the extent that the California labor market is recovering, it is a McJobs recovery.

Of course, the Googles, Facebooks and Apples of California are all still swimming in profits and growth. If you do happen to have a job already among the highest fifth of California income earners, your weekly wages are up 1 percent since 2006. But every other income group has experienced sharp earnings losses.

California is rapidly becoming a near-feudal society. On one side is an older, educated, landed, wealthy elite that lives on California's beautiful coasts. Then there is a much larger, younger, less-educated, indebted mass living inland, many of them working farm jobs at subsistence wages.

The good news is that both of these groups seem content supporting a Democratic Party whose policies (which I outlined in the series last week) reinforce these trends. And if any of the current Californians don't like what the new California has become, they are free to leave.

The bad news is that millions of middle-class families already have, and the trend is likely to continue.

Conn Carroll (ccarroll@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @conncarroll.

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