California needs a more ambitious recovery plan
While the news is full of optimism about vaccines, unexpectedly stable state revenues, and long-overdue federal stimulus, there are several looming risks to California’s recovery. The past year has revealed the dangers inherent in an under-resourced public sector. After decades of underfunding public health, vaccination rollout and PPE distribution staggered under logistical challenges, further prolonging the pandemic’s damage. California’s poorly funded schools have struggled to manage the costs of preparing for reopening, getting technology to students, and retaining staff to support students. As in many states, California’s unemployment insurance (UI) system has struggled to get billions of dollars to out-of-work Californians. Hospitals and schools face staffing shortages that will only get worse.
As the legislature and Governor negotiate the 2021-22 budget, they need to meet several challenges:
- Local governments need help: California’s local governments are in crisis. California lost more than 160,000 local government jobs in the first three months of the pandemic—nearly 170,000 as of December (compared to 142,000 at the lowest point after 2008). In May 2020 we noted that the impact of shelter-in-place orders on sales and tourism taxes made cities particularly vulnerable to revenue losses. We are also seeing property values fall—in some places significantly, particularly for commercial properties—which will hit local budgets in the upcoming fiscal year. Local governments employ more than three times as many people as the state—nearly 70% of public sector workers in California—and provide vital services, including transportation, public safety, public health, homeless outreach, and schools. Local governments fund the vast majority of infrastructure projects: roads, buildings, bridges, and transportation projects that generate thousands of jobs and millions in private sector spending. The Governor’s proposed economic recovery provides no direct funding for cities and counties.
- Pandemic impacts have been incredibly unequal: We are already experiencing a “k-shaped” recovery, in which those at the top recover quickly while those at the bottom continue to struggle. In fact, wealthier Californians have been generally unaffected by job and income losses (which partially explains why the state’s revenue picture is so much better than forecasted). Job loss has been heavily concentrated among low-wage workers. Almost 85% of Black workers in California have filed for unemployment; unemployment claims are also concentrated in high-poverty areas. Unemployment for women has been higher throughout the pandemic. Health risks are also unequally distributed: women and people of color are disproportionately working in jobs that require close proximity to others and must be performed in person. The unequal distribution of income and wealth posed a social and economic crisis before the pandemic, and will only worsen in the absence of strong public spending that helps close the gap between low-income Californians and economic security.
- Californians have accumulated mounting debts: The Federal Reserve estimates that U.S. renters owe $1.6 trillion in unpaid rent over the course of the pandemic; estimates for that amount in California range from $400 million to $3.6 billion. Suspension of student loan payments, recently extended through September 30, 2020, have prevented defaults but without significant federal student loan relief the resumption of those payments—and the accumulation of interest—will set borrowers back and suppress consumer spending.
- California’s education and health care sectors are significantly under-resourced: The pandemic has exposed the fragility of sectors that are central to economic opportunity and security: child care, education, and health. The challenges facing public school districts and child care providers—in reopening safely, recruiting and retaining staff, supporting the neediest students, and addressing equity gaps—have been existentially threatened by the pandemic. The weaknesses in our health care system and coverage have led to overwhelmed health care workers and devastating health outcomes. We discuss these challenges in more detail below.
- California’s infrastructure is not up to the challenge of our future: The past several wildfire seasons have driven home the risk that climate change poses to California’s future. We have not yet made the public investments necessary to support California’s adaptation to a drier, hotter climate. Investments in alternative energy sources—including the workforce to manage them—and in mitigation strategies—such as fire prevention, sustainable housing development, and wetland restoration—cannot wait.