California in 1970 was the American Dream writ large. Its economy was diversified, from aerospace and tech to agriculture, construction and manufacturing, and allowed for millions to achieve a level of prosperity and well-being rarely seen in the world.

Forty-five years later, California still is a land of dreams, but, increasingly, for a smaller group in the society. Silicon Valley, notes a recent Forbes article, is particularly productive in making billionaires’ lists and minting megafortunes faster than anywhere in the country. California’s billionaires, for the most part, epitomize American mythology – largely self-made, young and more than a little arrogant. Many older Californians, those who have held onto their houses, are mining gold of their own, as an ever-more environmentally stringent and density-mad planning regime turns even modest homes into million-dollar-plus properties.

What about California society as a whole? The Chapman University Center for Demographics and Policy released a report this month, by attorneys David Friedman and Jennifer Hernandez, on “California’s social priorities.” It painstakingly lays out our trajectory over the past 40 years. For the most part, it’s not a pretty picture and – to use the most overused word in the planning prayer book – far from sustainable from a societal point of view.

Educational Failures

Forty years ago, California was the role model for education, particularly with its network of community colleges, state universities and, at the apex, the University of California system. Today, that reputation is unraveling. For one thing, we are becoming proportionally less well-educated than our key domestic rivals. From 1970-2010, California’s growth in adults with four or more years of college grew at around the national average – 402 percent – despite average population growth that was nearly twice the national average. California, largely due to the past, still ranks 14th in percentage of adults with a bachelor degree or above, but that is down from seventh in 1970.

The trajectory for the future is not encouraging. The rate of college education growth in California is already well below that of such states as Texas, which expanded this cohort of its population by 555 percent, or Arizona, which boosted its college-educated adult population by more than 860 percent. California’s increase in college graduates also lagged that of key high-tech rivals, such as Colorado, Washington, Oregon and North Carolina. This also reflects, in part, the significant growth of major public universities in all these states. People saw the California approach to higher education – most closely identified with Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown – and copied it, with considerable effect.

But the state’s real problems can be found further down the educational food-chain. California’s production of adults with some college experience grew from 1970-2010 by 304 percent – which includes people getting skills in community colleges, for example – well below the national average of 409 percent. Meanwhile, our state’s numbers of adults who didn’t advance beyond high school also trailed the nation – 40 percent against a national average of 69 percent.

The trajectory overall is not pretty. In 1970, we ranked second in the number of adults with some education. Today, we are 24th.

But the worst news, by far, is at the very bottom: adults who do not have high school degrees. Nationwide, this population dropped by more than 23 million people, but California was one of only four states to boost its ranks of uneducated adults, and by 515,000 people, the largest increase in the country. This is a group that tends to be very poor and dependent on public assistance, which puts enormous stress on the state, counties and communities. In 1970, California had very opposite numbers, ranking 44th in adults without high school degrees; today we stand second.

The immediate, if politically incorrect view, would be this reflects our large population of Latinos, particularly the undocumented. But Texas has more Hispanics as a percentage of its society, yet managed to reduce the number of adults without a high school education by nearly 30,000 since 1970, despite massive population growth. More important, particularly for the future, Texas educational institutions, especially at the grade-school level, appear to be getting somewhat better results from Latino, and African American students.

Employment, Income and Poverty

It’s no surprise, then, that Latinos, who will shape much of America’s future, are overall doing better in Texas than in California. In Texas, they are more likely to be married and own a business or a home than their California counterparts – and far less likely be on some form of public assistance. One explanation has been the relative decline of the California economy, particularly in fields such as construction, manufacturing, energy and logistics, that have been traditional sources of upward mobility for working class, noncollege educated people.

California has largely chosen – through artificially high land prices as well regulatory excess – not to participate in either the recent U.S. energy boom, despite its massive reserves, or in the revival of American manufacturing, both prime sources of higher-wage blue-collar jobs. Nor has the state offered a stellar example of job growth overall in recent years.

Until 1990, California created jobs at an average rate of 3 percent per year, well above the national average. Since then the rate has been only 0.8 percent, well below the national average. Texas, with 70 percent of California’s population, has created 4 million new jobs since 1990, almost twice California’s production.

Overall, California has lagged, ranking 45th among the state in per capita income growth since 1970, up 62 percent versus a national average of more than 77 percent. Many of our key competitor states, including Texas, Washington and Colorado, have all done substantially better by this measurement.

Of course, not all Californians have done poorly under this regime. Since the mid-1970s, incomes for the top 20 percent of the state’s population have risen at above the national average. But for the rest of the population, the results have been well-below average.

Not surprisingly, California’s growth in income inequality has surged well ahead of the nation. In 1970, the state ranked 25th in income inequality. It now stands as fourth-worst. California’s poor and middle-income population has done far worse than the national average, but the state’s top 5 percent have done considerably better.

Most tragic of all has been the growth of poverty. In the 1960s and 1970s, notes University of Washington geographer Richard Morrill, California had a lower percentage of residents in poverty than the national norm. California’s share of the nation’s poor has steadily increased since then, and in the latest Census Bureau analysis, which factors in cost of living, its rate of poverty – some 24 percent – is the highest in the nation, worse even than such longtime sad sacks as Mississippi and Louisiana, not to mention Texas.

Policy Implications

California’s progressive politicians, such as the leftist icon Attorney General Kamala Harris, make a big point about their helping our state’s beleaguered middle and working classes. In reality, many of their policies, for example, in housing and energy, do little to encourage broad economic growth, and, in fact, restrict it. Even worse, recent indications are that progressives, and the Jerry Brown administration, seemed determined to double down on climate change-related regulations that will hamper most blue-collar sectors, at least those that do not require subsidies.

Ultimately, California does not have to give up its key environmental and social values, but it needs to pursue them in a way that benefits the majority of its residents. Once, the idea of upward mobility and broad-based growth were essential liberal values. Those need to become part of liberalism again.

As Friedman and Hernandez note in their report for Chapman, California should “expend as much energy on alleviating poverty and income inequality” as it does on “reducing emissions and protecting natural resources.” The reality is that we do have a chance to restore California to its place as a harbinger of opportunity for more than a handful of people, but we can only do so if we recognize the socially disastrous path the state is currently on.

Originally published at the Orange County Register

Cross-posted at New Geography.