Beth Court and the Death of A California Dream

When I was a kid in the 1980s, our family used to take Saturday drives from Orange County into the Inland Empire to explore new housing developments. We’d drive to Corona, or Rancho Cucamonga, or Temecula, or Moreno Valley, and follow the signs and flags to a new project. We’d find the model homes, park, get out, walk in and have a look. My sister would pick out her room and already have figured out where her Barbie collection would go.

But I never did imagine myself out there. It was too hot, too dusty, too far away from what passed for civilization in my mind. We were out there to see if we wanted to “drive until we qualified” – the 1980s housing bubble had priced my family out of homeownership in Orange County, so if we were to become a homeowning household, we had to go inland. I secretly hoped we never would, and we never did. Only at the last housing bottom in 1994 did my parents buy, and it was on the same street that we’d be renting on for 10 years. They still live there now, and probably will live there until they’re dead.

Soon after 1994 the great California housing bubble began to revive, and this time it would be bigger than any other asset bubble in history. And whereas our family was settled in Orange County, many other working-class and middle-class families just getting started were quickly priced out. Many of them made their way to the Inland Empire. To cities like Moreno Valley. To cul-de-sacs like Beth Court.

Jennifer Steinhauer of the New York Times has also made her way to Beth Court, and has turned her observations into a series of articles about the effect of the economic collapse on California exurbia. The first article on Sunday set the scene of what had once been an affordable way to own the California Dream having been destroyed by a housing bubble, widespread speculation, and soaring oil prices. The lack of health insurance, state budget cuts, and what can only be described as an Inland Empire job market in an outright Depression have taken their toll on families, balance sheets, and neighborhoods:

“All my work is enough for my kids and food, and that’s it,” said Ms. Burgueno, who began crying while talking about the turn their lives had taken. Indeed, the few conversations she agreed to have with a reporter began and ended in tears.

“I’d like to go to school again, maybe be an interpreter or a dental assistant,” she said. “I pay for health insurance now because I don’t like those little clinics.”

More from Beth Court over the flip.

Today’s article focuses on unemployment and how one family, that of Eloise Sanchez and Phil Winkler, have coped. Steinhauer falls into the trap of writing a story of individual fortitude, of the family that pulls itself up by the bootstraps to try and survive the crisis:

But within the Winkler family, there has also been an unmooring. The family’s comfortable middle-class life can no longer be sustained on Ms. Sanchez’s job as a dental office manager and checks from Mr. Winkler’s unemployment benefits, which he has renewed twice and are set to run out in November….

Mr. Winkler had taken a test for a job at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. It had gone well, but there was still no word. He wonders when he goes to job fairs why the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is always there. He had passed its test, but never heard from them. He took another test to work in the Kimberly-Clark factory nearby. Passed that one, too….

Ms. Sanchez lets her thoughts be known, and when it comes to her troubled block, her central message has been that men should be held accountable for the undoing of their families’ homes through financial folly.

And yet the only thing standing between Ms. Sanchez’s family and the fate that has befallen that of her neighbors is the fact that she still has a job and Winkler has a unemployment check (and it helps that they bought in 1997, right at the beginning of the bubble). But all of that is in jeopardy. As job losses mount, fewer people have dental coverage or can afford to visit a dentist. Since California has eliminated dental benefits from Medi-Cal and is dramatically scaling back healthy families, dental assistants are going to be facing a difficult time maintaining their employment. Winkler might make an excellent police officer, but very few agencies are going to be able to hire anytime soon. And with the state unable to augment unemployment benefits, his only hope is another Congressional extension of unemployment benefits.

I don’t mean this to criticize Sanchez and Winkler. There but for sheer luck go my own parents, one of whom works for a school district and the other who works in electronics. The criticism should more appropriately be leveled at Steinhauer for making it sound like these problems are to be experienced and resolved only in households, or on small cul-de-sacs. She’s written collective action, political organizing, and the public sector entirely out of the picture (though there are several more installments to come, so perhaps she will yet pursue the topic).

What their experiences show is their desperate need for government to play a much bigger role in addressing the economic crisis. The people of Beth Court need health care coverage. They need jobs. They need better transportation options. They need a right to rent.

And their state government isn’t giving them any of it. Instead Sacramento is wasting everyone’s time and making the economic crisis much worse with a reckless, single-minded focus on cutting spending. The words “economic recovery” are forbidden to be spoken in the halls of the Capitol. Government is to be undermined and scaled back no matter the cost or effect on a society teetering on the edge of a Depression. One might imagine that Democrats, having long desired a chance to break into the Inland Empire and pick up seats, would be aggressively pushing measures to help people like those on Beth Court. Dems aren’t, and their failure to do is truly stunning.

To add insult to injury, hardly anyone in Sacramento appears focused on providing long-term change. The people of Beth Court, of Moreno Valley, of the Inland Empire have found that the California economy of the last 30 years has totally failed them. Using asset bubbles to drive job creation and growth has been a failure. A few folks might be able to muddle through the wreckage, but most will not. They need our help.

Notice I said this was the death of a California Dream. The dream itself – that anyone can come and find economic security amidst the freedom and natural splendor of the Golden State – is still viable.

Renewing that dream requires us to fix a totally broken and undemocratic government so that we can mobilize public resources to address the crisis.

Ultimately we will need to redirect housing growth and families back into the coastal urban centers, so they can be closer to job opportunities that are not dependent on asset bubbles. We need to provide guaranteed health care and dramatically expand the ranks of government job opportunities for the remainder of what Paul Krugman called “economic purgatory.” We need to provide more transportation options so folks can get to their jobs without having to pay ever-rising sums of money to the oil companies.

What the New York Times is finding on Beth Court is people who are desperately trying to right their listing ships, but are receiving no assistance at all. As a result, many are sinking.

Government exists to help people. To offer a second chance. To give a boost to people who want to start over and do it better next time. If we are to renew the California Dream, we need to fix California’s broken government so we can implement the kind of sustainable and social democratic policies we need for 21st century prosperity.

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