After a rough year, California is on track to declare “victory” over Covid-19 on June 15th. Nonetheless, the fabric of California society has changed.
In recent months, California has gotten onboard the vaccination train and, as of this writing, more than 38 percent of those over the age of sixteen have been fully vaccinated — and another 20 percent have had one shot. (California is current vaccinating at the rate of 330,000 doses per day.) At the same time, the number of new COVID-19 cases has fallen, as has the number of Coronavirus-related deaths. The state is now averaging about 1400 cases and 75 deaths a day — the lowest per capita rates in the continental U.S. We’re on track to meet California Governor Gavin Newsom’s objectives and “open” the state on June 15th; this means that most businesses will be permitted to reopen, so long as they follow social distancing and mask rules.
At the same time, California appears to be on course for a strong economic recovery. Recently, the UCLA business school (https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-03-10/2021-california-covid-economic-recovery-outpaces-us) forecasted: “A waning pandemic combined with fiscal relief means a strong year of growth in 2021 — one of the strongest years of growth in the last 60 years — followed by sustained higher growth rates in 2022 and 2023…California, buoyed by high-earning technology and professional sectors that shifted to at-home work during the pandemic, will recover somewhat faster than the U.S., even though a full rebound in the tourist-dependent leisure and hospitality businesses will lag.”
Although it was initially forecast that the pandemic would hurt all aspects of the California economy, that turned out not to be the case. “The most likely source of [California’s] recovery is in the service sectors, as half of jobs lost at the recession’s nadir were in restaurants, entertainment and the arts, hotels and tourism, and other services such as salons or dry-cleaning.” (https://www.ppic.org/blog/one-year-later-is-california-on-the-road-to-recovery/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=one-year-later-is-california-on-the-road-to-recovery? )
Overall, in 2020, the California economy did better than expected because of technology. A recent California study (https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/california/california-revenues-soar-as-rich-get-richer-during-pandemic/2479807/ ) observed: “[During 2020] with the pandemic forcing the closure of bars, restaurants, theme parks, sporting events and small businesses, lower-wage workers bore the brunt of the losses while the wealthier worked from home. The economic losses started at the bottom of the income ladder and so far they haven’t made their way up to the top.” [Emphasis added] That is, the economic impact of the pandemic varied by social class — the rich were not as affected as the poor.
Coming out of the pandemic, we can see three important trends. The first is that the pandemic has exacerbated the already wide gap between California’s rich and poor. (https://www.ppic.org/publication/income-inequality-and-economic-opportunity-in-california/) Before the pandemic, California was already one of the top five states in terms of economic inequality; chances are that we are now number one. (https://www.ppic.org/publication/income-inequality-in-california/ )
The second trend is that the wealthy, and information-technology workers, are moving out of the cities into the suburbs and beyond. (This is particularly true in Northern California.) [A recent San Francisco Chronicle article (https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/People-are-leaving-S-F-but-not-for-Austin-or-15955527.php ) reinforces this notion and dismisses the contention that Californians, en masse, are leaving for other states.] During the pandemic, these upper-income Californians found they could work remotely — high-speed Internet is well-deployed throughout California. This trend has driven up housing prices throughout the Golden State. (It’s also contributed to the statewide scarcity of affordable housing.)
The third trend is that because of environmental challenges — such as the threat of fire and associated poor air quality — California’s most fortunate are moving to the coast. That means that the price of coastal housing has increased.
There are three consequences of these trends: the first is that as California heads towards the elusive goal of “herd immunity” — somewhere north of 80 percent vaccinated — the unvaccinated will disproportionately be found among the poor and those living in the eastern areas of the state — that is between California’s central valley and the border with Nevada/Arizona.
The second consequence is that as California heads into another summer of fires and poor air quality, the bulk of this misfortune will fall on much of the same population — the rural easternmost segment of the state.
The third consequence is that the impact of these trends will disproportionately impact Republican voters. A recent bipartisan survey (https://www.ppic.org/publication/california-voter-and-party-profiles/ ) concluded: “47% of those we consider most likely to vote are Democrats, while 26% are Republicans and 22% are independents.” [That is, California has become an overwhelmingly blue state.] The most Republican areas tend to be in the eastern areas of the state — that is, the areas less likely to be vaccinated, to be able to work from home, and to be able to flee from fires and drought.
Viewed from the proverbial “10,000 feet,” these problem areas can be addressed in three ways: First, California needs to redouble its effort to vaccinate the poor and those living in eastern areas of the state, i.e. rural Republicans. Second, while there is already a massive state-wide effort to head off a dangerous fire season, some portion of the rural-residential danger can be mitigated by providing affordable housing — so residents don’t have to move into wooded rural areas to find housing. Third, because the pandemic provided tangible evidence of “the digital divide,” California needs to do more to provide high-speed internet to the poor and to the eastern areas of the state — and the associated training.
California has the resources to fix these problems. The question is: does the Golden State have the political will to make these changes?