Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: California should be a mecca for the poor

Crickette Blackwell, who is homeless, is served a Thanksgiving meal by volunteers at Westcare in Fresno last year. Fresno is one of the poorest metro areas in the United States, yet people keep moving there.
Crickette Blackwell, who is homeless, is served a Thanksgiving meal by volunteers at Westcare in Fresno last year. Fresno is one of the poorest metro areas in the United States, yet people keep moving there. Fresno Bee file

Fresno is one of the poorest metro areas in the United States. So why do people keep moving there?

The short answer: Fresno is in California. And there is something very different about our state’s poor cities.

In other parts of America, people have abandoned cities with high poverty rates and low rates of education. Detroit’s population fell from 1 million in 1995 to 688,000 today, Cleveland’s from 500,000 in 1999 to less than 390,000 today. I cut my teeth as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, and my main job was watching people flee; Charm City’s population, once more than 900,000, is down to 620,000 today.

But in California, our poor cities are magnets, drawing new people and maintaining strong population growth.

Fresno, our poorest large city, had 392,000 people in 1995 and 520,000 now. Stockton and San Bernardino grew in population, even as they slid into bankruptcy. The dynamic extends beyond cities to rural places; California’s poorest counties, Imperial and Tulare, have both doubled their populations since 1978. This growth is particularly noteworthy given the slower gains in the state’s overall population in the past two decades.

This may confound Californians. We keep hearing contrasting narratives – that California is a place that the poor (and many others) are fleeing, and that California has the highest percentage of poor people of any state. Is California attracting the poor, or repelling them?

The answer is both.

Poor people are leaving our expensive coastal counties in search of places where they can improve their standard of living. While many people leave the state entirely, many head, at least at first, to inland cities, where they are joined by immigrants and by Californians from smaller, rural communities.

Why stick it out in California?

Our universities still provide good value. If you’re poor, California offers services more generous than those of many other states. Our poor cities also provide another amenity: warm weather. Research shows that warm January weather is among the most reliable predictors of urban growth.

This escape-valve role that these cities play hasn’t won them much respect. The leaders of this supposedly progressive state too often see poor people – and the places where they live – more as burdens than potential assets. Some Democrats in Sacramento lament the 12 million people on Medi-Cal as a budget burden, instead of celebrating this expansion of health coverage and doing more to provide timely, high-quality health care.

We are overdue for an attitude shift about the poor. Our wealthiest places are rapidly aging; these growing poor cities are younger than the state average.

California is becoming a more working-class place. We should start by treasuring our growing poor cities. Municipalities all over the country are all chasing the same narrow swath of college-educated hipsters. Might it be more advantageous, in this age of American inequality, to champion cities that attract poor people and to figure out ways for those cities to do better by their residents?

You may think it’s odd to focus on attracting and nurturing the less fortunate, but I can think of at least one nation that has done well by positioning itself as a mecca for the poor.

Perhaps someone should erect a replica of the Statue of Liberty along Highway 99 in Fresno, alongside signs with the famous sonnet, transported from New York Harbor: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

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