Go West, young man: not for opportunity but to see how a broken social welfare model plus unchecked immigration is shredding America. In the 1950s, the Golden State embodied the future, but as an excellent article by Heather Mac Donald in City Journal shows, the emergence of a mass Hispanic population – unassimilated, Spanish-speaking, and poorly-educated – since the 1970s both reveals the failures of Blue California and underscores how dismal the situation could become for all Californians without serious reform.
The situation wasn’t always so bad. In the 1970s, Southern California had enough blue-collar jobs in industries like defense, petroleum engineering, and aerospace to underwrite the country’s most ambitious state education system, pensions for public employees, and – importantly – upward mobility for a Hispanic middle class. The average Southern California Hispanic, even those of Mexican extraction, “spoke only English and had assimilated to Anglo culture,” according to a Pepperdine survey. The combination of a middle class, guarded borders, and a generous welfare state looked like it basically worked.
It didn’t. A de facto open borders policy meant that Southern California’s Latino population exploded. “In the 1960s,” Mac Donald writes, “Los Angeles was the most Anglo-Saxon of the nation’s ten largest cities; today, Latinos make up nearly half of the county’s residents and one-third of its voting-age population.” Much of that growth came in the last decade, too; from 2000 to 2010, California’s Hispanic population grew by 28 percent.
This did not represent an issue in itself. Many of those immigrants, the majority of whom came from Mexico, brought with them strong work ethic and respect for vertical authority that is often lacking among the American underclass. Entrepreneurs from South American and Cuba did particularly well. But that was in part because these immigrants had more social capital than their Mexican counterparts. They needed a plane ticket or visa to come to California and had to have big ambitions for themselves and their children to leave the old country.
More than that, they did not have a stream of family members following them to retard the assimilation of their children into the English-speaking workforce, the educational system, or American culture. The strength of Latino extended families kept them out of real poverty, but it also meant that kids were dragged not to piano practice, debate leagues, or Pop Warner, but to weekend get-togethers with their unassimilated uncles, cousins, and grandparents, many of whom had just crossed the border.
California was becoming the linguistically and culturally schizophrenic place it is today: a huge part of what makes the state so dynamic. Well-educated immigrants in Menlo Park or Palo Alto spoke Hindi, Persian, or Chinese at home but fluent English in their high-tech workplaces.
But for Hispanics in places like Santa Ana, meanwhile, the opposite was the case. “In 1988,” Mac Donald writes, “when accountant and entrepreneur Martha de la Torre began El Clasificado, a free Spanish classified-advertising newspaper, she assumed that the demand for Spanish-language publications would last only a few decades; instead, the market for El Clasificado has grown far beyond its original base in Los Angeles, even as similar English-language publications have gone bankrupt.”
This is part of what makes the immigration dynamic in California different from previous waves of American migration, and what American mandarins writing from New York City or Washington often miss: the geographic proximity of Latin America and a shift in immigrants’ norms about assimilation, language, and American culture creates a second and third generation of immigrants for whom assimilation into mainstream American institutions (corporations, universities, the officer corps, etc.) is frustrated.
A perverse combination of Blue Social Model-style welfare and educational policies has further hurt California’s Latinos, turning them into mamluks of the California welfare state rather than the businessmen, and professionals that other groups, like Armenians, Persians, and Koreans, often become. In poor towns in Fresno County, EBT cards are more common than credit cards. U.S.-born Hispanic households in California use welfare programs (such as cash welfare, food stamps, and housing assistance) at twice the rate of U.S.-born non-Hispanic households, and the figures for households headed by illegal immigrants are even higher. The Latino Caucus in the state legislature makes the state higher education budget largely conditional on maintaining de facto affirmative action policies for Latinos.
But when Latinos get to campus, they track not into the private sector but … back into Big Blue. Mac Donald writes that “at California State University in 2008, just 1.7 percent of master’s degree students in computer science were Mexican-American, as were just 3.6 percent of students in engineering master’s programs. The largest percentage of Mexican-American enrollment in M.A. programs was in education—40 percent—despite (or perhaps because of) Mexican-Americans’ low test scores.”
The cycle continues: bad teachers (but they’re our bad teachers) get patronage jobs in the state education system, the worst in the country after Mississippi and Alabama, young Hispanics and African-Americans don’t get the skills they need to compete, and end up disproportionately working in the public sector. When financial crises make public sector employment no longer a viable option, we get the crisis we see today.
The crackup of those employment opportunities as California’s welfare state collapses under its own weight, and the political fallout of this great shift, is one of the stories that this Californian abroad hope to continue tracking, even as opportunity at the moment takes me away from the Golden State, to colder – but in some ways sunnier – locales. How long can California Blue Democrats, like Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, and Hispanic voters can continue a marriage that is hollowing out the state financially, and the Hispanic community morally and materially? Change, it seems to this Los Angeles native, is inevitable, but how quickly and in what form remains depressingly hard to predict.