The Political Effect of California’s Changing Demographics

The Brookings Institution is out with an important new study, The State of Metropolitan America, which illustrates that many of the changes I described yesterday are already under way. California is part of the great shift away from suburban living toward urban, dense living. But because California’s “institutional sclerosis” is so deeply rooted in the suburbs, and in a foolish and nonsensical desire to preserve the political and economic primacy of the suburbs, the Golden State risks failing to embrace this shift and falling behind the rest of a reurbanizing country.

The Huffington Post article about the Brookings report gives a good overview:

In a reversal, America’s suburbs are now more likely to be home to minorities, the poor and a rapidly growing older population as many younger, educated whites move to cities for jobs and shorter commutes.

Count me as one of those “younger, educated whites” who prefers living in a city to a suburb. I was born and raised in the middle of Orange County’s sprawl, but have since lived in Berkeley and Seattle. I now live in Monterey, which is basically a small town, but has more of an urban than a suburban feel. Everything I need is within walking or biking distance, as Monterey has preserved its prewar urban layout.

The study also shows the changing demographics of suburbia:

Suburbs still tilt white. But, for the first time, a majority of all racial and ethnic groups in large metro areas live outside the city. Suburban Asians and Hispanics already had topped 50 percent in 2000, and blacks joined them by 2008, rising from 43 percent in those eight years.

Suburbs are home to the vast majority of baby boomers age 55 to 64, a fast-growing group that will strain social services after the first wave of boomers turns 65 next year….

The suburbs now have the largest poor population in the country. According to the analysis, between 1999 and 2008, the suburban poor grew by 25 percent; five times the growth rate of the poor in cities. During that same time period, the median household income in the U.S. declined by $2,241.

It would be unfortunate if reurbanization would up turning the California suburbs into an American version of the French banlieue, where the poor are stuck isolated from the economic engines of city centers. But that does appear to be what is happening.

With a huge population of older people and poorer people, the suburbs will require massive new government programs to provide for basic human needs. Moreover, they’ll need major infrastructure work to retrofit some of the older suburbs to more effectively handle a post-oil future. As oil prices rise, the suburbs will become a very expensive place to live, and getting to work or to school or to services will be difficult without developing some kind of alternative transportation systems.

The Brookings report understands this:

Calling 2010 the “decade of reckoning,” the report urges policymakers to shed outdated notions of America’s cities and suburbs and work quickly to address the coming problems caused by the dramatic shifts in population.

Among its recommendations: affordable housing and social services for older people in the suburbs; better transit systems to link cities and suburbs; and a new federal Office of New Americans to serve the education and citizenship needs of the rapidly growing immigrant community.

In addition to that, we’ll need new investments in education, health care, eldercare, and job creation.

Will any of that happen as long as the older generation of suburban homeowners have a stranglehold on our politics? 1978 saw the creation of a homeowner veto over state spending policy, justified on the now-disproven theory that a reduction in government services and taxes would enable the 1960s suburban paradise to last forever.

But that was in another world entirely. Today, the suburbs are no longer the centers of California wealth and job creation, and no longer the center of the middle class. If we are to avoid turning the suburbs into American banlieues, more money will need to be spent there, but current suburbanites are convinced this is neither necessary nor desirable.

There’s going to be a pitched battle over the next 10 years in the California suburbs over whether the failed model of the past is preserved, or whether a new future is embraced. In counties and city councils across the state, older suburbanites will be fighting with younger suburbanites, in a battle that will too often be tinged (at minimum) with racist tones on the part of the older folks, over taxes and public services. There will be room to build new coalitions in support of the services and infrastructure that everyone in the suburbs will need, but those coalitions may not emerge quickly or easily, or may do so unevenly depending on where in the state we’re talking about.

More fundamentally, is the California state government prepared and able to shift away from 60 years of directing resources to the suburbs and instead moving it back to the cities? The Legislature has nearly destroyed urban mass transit systems – Muni just implemented service cuts, Caltrain and Metrolink are facing major funding shortfalls, OCTA had to eviscerate its bus system just as it was getting serious ridership growth.

California is starting to undergo major, profound change. Can we embrace it and use it to rebuild California’s prosperity on a shared, equal basis? Or will our institutional sclerosis lead us into further decline as some city centers prosper but the suburbs become slums?

3 thoughts on “The Political Effect of California’s Changing Demographics”

  1.  Of course this is what will happen because “White Flight” is happening yet a gain. Only this time its not based on racial lines so much.

    Its about that American Cornerstone – Convenience

    Before it was to get away from the crime, drugs, minorities and poorly funded public schools.

    Now it will be to get away from urban sprawl. Wait minute how come I only hear White People complain about Urban Sprawl when Black and Brown folk who live in the city complain about having to drive across town to get services not offered in their area?

    Why is it okay for you to move and be happy about getting all your services within a nice walking distance, when again, many minorities right in South Los Angeles like I said have to drive across town to get some services not offered in their area?

    So are you going to help beat back the anger of people like your parents who will blame the incoming minorities for the reduction in “quality of life” while you BRAG about your two block walk to get groceries and hot meals?


  2. I was stuck, when visiting Europe, at how different both the cities and small towns were.

    Cities had great public transit and what we’d call here, mixed-use development, that put small stores and neighborhood restaurants within easy walking distance of almost any home in the city. Here we’ve created residential and commercial ghettos that require transportation for most people to get to.

    Small towns are connected to the cities by public transit. But they also have their own markets and cafes within easy walking distance.

    The result is that I spent a week in Paris and never needed a car. The result is that a friend’s 90-year-old great aunt walks to shops in her French village every day and lives independently. Cities and towns alike are ringed by agricultural lands that are carefully preserved–at the cost of much higher urban density. Even in smaller  U.S., we’d have trouble doing any of this. Especially since our transit systems are fragmented and inefficient.

    Yes, there are ghettos in Europe where this isn’t true. But, overall, it really is.

    I don’t see it as an issue of town vs. country. Of race vs. race. Of young vs. old. I see it as being mature enough to realize that civilized living requires some planning and investment. It seems to me the U.S. hasn’t grown up enough to realize that.  

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