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October 2019, Volume 25, Number 4

California

California added 3.2 million jobs between 2010 and 2019, reducing the unemployment rate to 4.1 percent in summer 2019, a record low. However, the median home price climbed to over $611,000, also a record, putting homes out of reach of many state residents.

California had fewer wildfires in summer and fall 2019 than in 2018. The most extensive US wildfires were in Alaska, where a million acres burned by the end of July 2019.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which already charges among the highest electricity rates in the US, received permission in July 2019 to add a levy on its bills to create a $10 billion compensation fund for victims of wildfires between 2020 and 2035. PG&E is liable for an estimated $30 billion in costs for past wildfires, and in October 2019 proposed a $20 billion compensation fund that included 12 billion for individuals and public agencies that have settled with PG&E, and $8.4 billion for wildfire victims.

California?s constitution makes PG&E liable for damages caused by its equipment even if PG&E was not negligent.

California has 3,000 water districts, and a third may not be delivering potable water. Most of the troubled water districts are small and serve poor communities; some have spent the money they collected from water users unwisely. Some 300 public water systems are out of compliance with federal drinking water safety standards, exposing a million Californians to potentially unsafe drinking water.

Cities. Mexicali is the one million resident capital of Baja California that includes thousands of border commuters, people who live in Mexicali and commute daily to US jobs, including farm worker jobs. Uncertainty over how long it will take to cross the border means that most border commuters arrive in the US early, sometimes at 2 or 3am, since border-crossing lines get longer near sunrise.

Donut Avenue, opened by a Cambodian refugee in Calexico in 1992, has become the place for farm workers to congregate and contractors and supervisors to recruit workers. By 5am, buses, vans and cars have departed for the fields, and Donut Avenue is empty.

Napa is a high-cost area for low-wage workers, with median house prices of $660,000 in Napa and $1.4 million in St Helena in June 2019. About 40 percent of Napa Valley residents rent housing, and half of these renters spend at least a third of their income on rent. Many of the workers filling low-wage jobs in Napa county live in cheaper areas outside Napa, forcing them to commute to their jobs.

Arvin Mayor Jose Gurrola took on Kern county oil and gas firms, charging that their pipelines posed a danger to local residents and that fracking tainted groundwater. Kern county, with 40,000 active oil and gas wells, has a county-wide ordinance regulating oil and gas drilling that does not require environmental impact studies for individual wells. Gurrola's proposal for an Arvin-specific ordinance to require environmental studies of each new well drew opposition.

Arvin's ordinance was approved, setting a precedent in a city of 20,000 that is 93 percent Latino. Other San Joaquin Valley cities may begin to regulate local industries such as oil and agriculture that contribute to poor air quality and tainted water.

Emeryville, a city of 12,000, has the highest minimum wage in the US, $16.30 an hour after July 1, 2019. Median rents for one-bedroom apartments are $2,800 a month, and median home prices are $560,000. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since 2009, while California's minimum wage rose to $12 in 2019.

The Congressional Budget Office in July 2019 estimated that a $15 federal minimum wage would increase wages for 17 million US workers and result in the loss of 1.3 million jobs. Restaurants that pay the minimum wage and face stiff competition are most vulnerable to higher minimum wages.

State. California is often seen as the state of the future, the place where demographic and economic change occurs first. California has some of the richest Americans and world-class computing and entertainment industries, but 40 percent of the state's residents are poor or near-poor and many are employed in menial jobs.

One criticism of California says that: "The Golden State used to be a rising tide lifting all sorts of boats. Now it's a rising tide lifting a few yachts."

California has an eighth of US residents, and half of US homeless. There are many reasons for the state's large share of homeless people, including strict building and environmental regulations that increase the cost of housing and a wide array of social services that may act as a magnet for the homeless.