By Neil Kleiman

Hidden in Plain Sight: Why California’s Economically Challenged Cities Matter

When Oscar Wilde wrote, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” he certainly never experienced the modern summer destruction movie blockbuster. Whether it’s the “Terminator” franchise, intergalactic destruction in “Independence Day,” or apocalyptic pandemonium in “2012,” it seems like a year doesn’t pass without at least one Hollywood production imagining the Golden State’s technicolor demise.

The truth is that one of the biggest, and yet least acknowledged, threats facing California is far less cinematic than dinosaurs making their way through Los Angeles. Nearly 12 million Californians live in an economically challenged city – that’s the same population as the entire state of Ohio – and one in four of all challenged cities in the country are in California.

hidden in plain sight reportThe National Resource Network has just released its second policy report, researching the impact and potential of economically challenged communities on the state of California. We define economically challenged cities with the following characteristics:

  • Even after the current economic recovery took hold, more than nine percent of residents remained unemployed as of 2013;
  • More than 20 percent of adults were living in poverty;
  • Or where population decline between 2000 and 2010 reached five percent.

Our findings highlight the critical role these cities play in the state’s economy and describe their potential to become significant catalysts for further economic growth if challenges are overcome. Already, these cities have the ingredients to turn their economies around. They are growing faster than other cities in California, spurred by immigration and the presence of medical centers, major universities, and other economic assets. They are more racially diverse and younger than the rest of the state. In spite of their struggles, they already create more than $1 trillion in GDP annually and are home to more than 4.6 million jobs.

But the challenges they face are deeper rooted than any Hollywood-inspired disaster. Far fewer of these cities’ residents are college educated and on average, they earn 60 percent less than residents in other cities. This report illustrates why it is important for elected officials and policymakers to work with the leadership in these cities to make the most of resources that can improve their economies and their residents’ quality of life.  Understanding, identifying, and then overcoming the economic barriers in California’s cities is vital to our nation and most of all, to the 12 million people who live in them.

This report was released at an event at the USC Price School on November 18, 2015. Bob Shrum, Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics and Professor of the Practice of Political Science at USC, moderated a panel that included Aja Brown, Mayor of Compton; Mercedes Márquez, former Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles; David Chiu, CA State Assemblymember; and Raphael Bostic, Sol Price School of Public Policy at the USC.  Antonio Villaraigosa, former Mayor of Los Angeles, gave the closing remarks. Watch a recording of the discussion online here.

For additional coverage of the report, read this great article by the Sacramento Bee.