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California: A Tale of Two States

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California produces roughly 50 percent of the fruit consumed in the United States. It remains the Mecca for the high tech industry; it has Hollywood, and two of its public institutions of higher education (UCLA and the University of California) are consistently ranked among the top colleges in the nation.

California is the largest state in the republic in terms of population. If it were a country, it would be the 9th largest economy in the world.

But the Golden State also has the look of iron pyrite (fool's gold). California is simultaneously the wealthiest state with the highest poverty rate when factoring the cost of living, according to the most recent U.S. census figures. California's poverty rate has increased 24 percent -- the national poverty rate has increased 15.8 percent.

Right out of Dickens, it is a tale of two states, the best of times for some, and the worst for the rest. California is moving toward an unsustainable dystopia, giving rise to such epic novels as 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Clockwork Orange.

Since the economic downturn hit in 2008, the state has cut more than $15 billion from food stamps, Medi-Cal, CalWorks and other safety net programs.

Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed an increase in the minimum wage that will reach $10 an hour by 2016. A good start, the state must also reinvest in key safety net programs, but both are inadequate to alter the current economic trend.

When Brown recently released the state's revised proposal, which is more optimistic, it offered the oxymoronic reality of economic growth on paper, while poverty increases in the lives of many across the state.

But a state hamstrung by unfunded pension liabilities in excess of $400 billion, a declining physical and social infrastructure, along with a self-induced dysfunctional form of governing is unlikely to hear the cries emanating from those on the margin.

Any economic map of the state reveals a largely lush coastal area (from Sonoma County to San Diego) still brimming with hope and possibility. But the remainder of the state is increasingly becoming a barren wasteland impoverished not only economically but also by a nihilistic frustration that harbors scant optimism for change.

That is not to suggest that the "lush" areas are void of any economic challenges. But the lines of demarcation that divide have and have not communities make it increasingly unlikely that the twain shall meet, creating a virtual economic Iron Curtain.

How does it serve the interest of the state to have the least of these remain permanently on the last rung of the triage continuum?

California has myriad problems that warrant immediate attention. Its long overdue to offer a new Master Plan that offers coherent strategies that meet the educational needs of the 21st century. California's public education system was graded a D, according to Education Week -- a national newspaper that covers K-12 education.

California cannot continue the decades long process of ballot box budgeting; and the state's levees are one natural disaster away from bringing the nation to its economic knees. But the plight of the poor also demands immediate attention.

Moreover, change cannot occur without active participation by those who stand to benefit most.

When President Lyndon Johnson issued a war on poverty, it was in response to the valiant public efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. Without such efforts it is unlikely that a requisite sampling of elected officials, bombarded by myriad special interests, will take up the cause of the poor.

The change required is a long-term solution that cannot be held hostage by the clamor of the 24-hour news cycle.

Over the years, groups and individuals have proposed ways to divide the state. But California has already been divided economically into two states. It is held together in name only, Dickens indeed.