The Natives Are Restless

One of the oldest and most important phenomena in California history (at least post-1849 history) is that of migration to the Golden State. Sometimes the migrants were welcomed, other times they were met with ax handles, burned out of their homes, and in the 1930s, put on trains to Mexico.

Migration has been one of the driving economic forces of the state – allowing California to remain the center of many American industries (entertainment, high-tech, agriculture, real estate) without having to make the parallel investment in higher education. Why build more UCs when California’s big employers can recruit from a national talent pool?

One of the effects of migration is that native Californians are few and far between. Hell, I’m a fourth-generation Californian but the only native on a Calitics editorial board full of carpetbaggers. Except that phenomenon may be starting to change, according to a new study out of USC: The New Homegrown Majority in California: Recognizing the New Reality of Growing Commitment to the Golden State. As reported in yesterday’s SF Chronicle:

For the first time in history, a majority of California residents were born and raised in the Golden State – a demographic sea change for a place that has long been defined as a land of migrants from other states and countries, according to a study released Monday by researchers at the University of Southern California.

Today, more than 70 percent of teens and young adults were born in California, up from barely half in 1990. As they age, they will become the first generation in the state’s history in which a majority of people are California-born to assume leadership roles in society, according to the report “The New Homegrown Majority in California: Recognizing the New Reality of Growing Commitment to the Golden State.”

Not only are Californians more likely to be born in the state, but those who are born here are less likely to move out of state, the researchers found. In fact, while half of adults 25 and older nationwide still reside in the state of their birth, more than two-thirds of California natives do.

Over the flip I take a look at what this might mean for our state’s political and economic future.

I’m one of those native Californians who prefers to stay in the state of my birth. Even thought I spent seven wonderful years in Seattle, it’s good to be back in California, warts and all. The economic landscape isn’t great here, but neither is it great anywhere else – sure, I could buy a house in Detroit with the change in between the seat cushions, but it’s not like there are any jobs out there. I’d rather stay here and enjoy the sun and surf even if I have to rent to do it.

Some of it is climate – if you’re born and raised in California how easy is it really to weather a few New England winters, or muggy Southern summers? Some of it is cultural, especially the perception, not without reason but somewhat unfair to many other parts of the country, that California is more accepting of differences, less culturally or religiously conservative, etc. As we saw last November this isn’t entirely true, but the perception matters.

There are also economic reasons why this is happening. As the cost of living rises, and especially as it becomes more expensive to go to college or find a decent job, geographic mobility plummets – folks can’t move away to pursue better opportunities quite as easily. And over the last 10 years, as the growth in California housing prices far outstripped that of the rest of the country, it became more difficult for people to relocate here.

All those factors, and likely several others, are responsible for the maturation of California from a fast-growing destination for pioneers of various kinds, to a multigenerational home. But it has political and economic impacts as well. As the Chronicle notes:

California-born Latinos and Asian Americans have especially deep roots, the study found. In both groups, more than 82 percent of those in the 25 to 34 age range were still living in the Golden State in 2007, compared with 76 percent of California-born blacks and 62 percent of California-born whites in the same age group….

So much attention has been paid to Latino and Asian immigrants in recent years that the native born have been overlooked, said Ricardo Ramirez, a USC professor of political science and a co-author of the report.

“It has not just social implications, but political implications,” said Ramirez. “These two communities will eventually transform the electorate. They’re younger voters who are more willing to have government step in and do more, and they’re willing to be taxed.”

This is a very important point. From the 1970s to the 2000s, many voters were folks who moved here as adults from other states. Their goals were to own a home and make money, and low taxes served that goal. That’s not to say everyone in that group wasn’t interested or invested in our social services or in building a more equitable society, many were. But there is a big difference between people coming here to increase their personal wealth and  those who have been born here and understand that government must take the lead in providing social mobility.

One of the USC study’s authors makes this point in the LA Times article on the topic:

The younger generation of native-born Californians is more likely to support higher taxes for public services and to stick around to return the state’s investment in their education, the study said….

[Dowell] Myers said the new findings suggest a social compact on public policy and investment between older and wealthier Californians and a more ethnically diverse younger generation. As those young adults move into the middle class, they will help support retirees and be customers for one of their largest assets: their homes.

“Older folks tend to think these [education services are] consumed by the young, for the benefit of the young,” he said. “If you think about it, there’s a lot in it for everyone.”

Education policy is definitely going to be one of the main aspects of this. No longer can California let other states educate our workers for us. More of that must be done at home.

But with crippling cuts coming to UC and CSU budgets, forcing them to turn away eligible students, we may not be able to provide the kind of economic mobility our native sons and daughters deserve. If more Californians are staying put, that means they’ll need a quality education and jobs. We can’t import it forever – or if we did, we’d be importing our skilled workforce while our native population suffers. Which is of course pretty much what’s been happening to many of our poorer communities for a few decades now anyway.

Unless we resolve the issues of jobs, cost of living, and education, then California will be headed down a path of structural inequality. In fact, as the California Budget Project noted in their 2007 study A Generation of Inequality, this may already taking place.

What’s entirely possible is that in a state with poor economic prospects, a high cost of living, but a large population that cannot move away to find work elsewhere or for various reasons will not do so, we will see greater social stratification. Those who are lucky enough to have parents or grandparents that own homes may inherit that wealth outright. Those who do not may be unable to move up from poverty or financial insecurity.

In any case, as one of these California natives who prefers to stay here, I’m gratified that so many of my compadres feel the same connection to the land, to their home (and as strange as this is, the place in CA that still feels most like “home” is Orange County!) that I do. A distinct Californian identity is emerging and that will have a big impact on the course of American identity and nationalism over the course of this century.

But the first and immediate task is to ensure that Californians, no matter where you were born (because once you take up residence here, you’re a Californian), have a basic level of economic security and stability. And that means we need to implement progressive policies that will provide that equitable and sustainable future.

Because, as the Eagles so perceptively noted back in the 1970s about California, you can check out any time you like – but you can never leave.

4 thoughts on “The Natives Are Restless”

  1. And I’ve already had to send the older one out of state to the University of Arizona — no UC slots available for him as a “guaranteed transfer” student from Palomar College. I expect the younger one may end up out of state as well.

    The UC and state university cuts have infuriated me. My husband used to work within the UC system and we have certainly seen the tidal change in support for our universities. It’s very very sad.

    The yacht party is going to come to regret the way they treat these kids, that’s for sure.

  2. really hope that generational shift gets underway before the older generation destroys the place with their antitax equity mad i-got-mine BS.

    i wonder if that staying-in-place younger generation’s part of the multiethnic nature of the California vowel shift going on. wish i was a linguist so i could hear what they’re talking about.

  3. and my family has lived here for most of three generations. I’m staying. It’s not about the weather – it’s just my home.

  4. At least Leubitz had the good sense to marry a native.  Although, I did have bad timing in starting elementary school in 1978, the year Prop 13 passed.  As Prop 13 took hold and began to strangle the education budget, I had the good fortune that my Mom moved to Lake Tahoe and I attended high school in Nevada, just close that we could see California’s schools crumbling across the border.  

    After seven regrettable years in Texas, I was thrilled to move back to my home state in 2001.  Although I sometimes fantasize about leaving this whole mess behind and moving to Canada, I can’t imagine not living in California.

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