Reporting

July 10, 2017

Young mayor aims to reinvent central California city facing large opportunity gap

This is the latest in a series of columns on what can and should be done to improve upward mobility in California. We at California Forward and the California Economic Summit welcome your comments and ideas.

Michael Tubbs is the first African-American mayor of Stockton, California, and the youngest mayor in American history of a city of more than 100,000 people. Before being elected mayor in November 2016, Tubbs served as a city council member. He was born and raised in Stockton, attended Stanford University graduating with a Master's degree in Policy, Leadership and Organization Studies, plus a Bachelor's degree with honors.

Tubbs is active on social media with his favorite hashtag: #reinventStockton. He spoke with Victor Abalos recently, sharing his concerns about the inability for too many Californians to work themselves into the middle class:

What does “upward mobility” mean to you and why does it matter?

“Upward mobility” is the opportunity to do better than your parents. If you look at California our upward mobility issues are rendered invisible because we have this veneer of prosperity, of economic opportunity created by the Silicon Valley. But as you know California is actually two or three different communities.

Out here in the Central Valley, particularly Stockton, there is a lack of opportunity to connect to the Silicon Valley “ecosystem.” We cannot access the prosperity that’s being created in certain parts of the state.

How do we address that? What can you, as a policy maker, do to create that access?

Our elected (officials) have to get serious about workforce training because automation is coming, whether we like it or not. And we have to transition people from the jobs of today for the economy of tomorrow. And we have to prepare our children to be a part of that new eco-system.

It’s not necessarily that everybody needs to learn how to code, like if you look at San Francisco and the San Jose school districts - they have made coding a part of the curriculum, like English and Spanish, and the Central Valley needs to do the same thing. But also, how can we train folks to do the stuff needed for automated vehicles, for battery operated cars, how can we make sure that folks who look like they might get left behind aren’t going to be left behind as we transition to this new economy.

There is a sense of urgency in your analysis of this situation. Why?

The urgency for me is, I’m in a community where the average income today is $40,000, and a lot of those are service industry jobs, that will be replaced by automation in the next decade or two. So for me, we should have gotten started on this yesterday.

I’ve often said, for the Golden State to be golden, all of the state has to be golden. And right now there’s a lot of parts of the Central Valley that aren’t golden. There’s a lot of good things happening in the Central Valley but given this political moment, we have the opportunity to show people that being forward thinking and smart and sharing growth widely is the best thing. And California is the best test for that.

If not a consensus we do have the same political party controlling both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office and every state office. So there’s a real opportunity to craft an agenda that speaks to some of the economic anxieties people are feeling.

Many people working to address income inequality point to the number of broken systems in our state as major obstacles. What’s broken in California?

Let’s talk education. 0-5, 0-3 is where the biggest interventions need to happen and that’s where the deficit begins. In the California public education system let’s look at outcomes. For all races but especially for kids of color, reading proficiency especially at 3rd grade or alegebra going into 7th grade, it’s abysmal. As a former educator I know it’s difficult but it’s depressing how our education system is broken.

Let’s look at the UC (University of California), CSU (California State University) systems. There’s a lack of access to courses for some students, the price of tuition is now becoming unaffordable for many California students. If our own students can’t access to education that our taxpayers are subsidizing I think there’s a problem with that.

Look at the housing crisis. I read somewhere when you adjust for housing, California leads the nation in poverty. So we need to figure out how to build more affordable units. $100,000 a year, makes you a top 5 percent - 10 percent income earner in America but that’s low income in some places like LA or San Francisco when it comes to housing.

I think also what’s broken is the lack of attention being focused on the Central Valley. When you look at the fastest rising areas of the state, when you look at where’s our available land, when you look at where’s the semi-affordable housing, you’re looking at areas like Fresno and Bakersfield and Stockton. Those areas have been neglected politically for a long time. I am of the opinion, not just because I live in Stockton, that’s really the future of California. How do we really invest in the folks here. The talent is not just concentrated in LA or the Bay Area, but there’s talented folks all throughout this state, up north and in the Central Valley who just lack opportunity.

So how do we fix those broken systems?

If I had the answers I’d be mayor. What works is being really innovative. Earned income tax credits, how do we get all the people who qualify for earned income tax credit to apply? By increasing the budget for outreach and really going to folks who qualify to let them know it’s a good thing: “You get money back. It’s super important.”

Expanding programs like the California Upward Mobility Program. I think that lots of areas of the state have been left behind for too long. Let’s create some sort of targeted initative, almost like a Promise Zones for California? Makes a lot of sense. Where the top five or ten zip codes are given special attention by the state around key indicators like education or workforce development.

Numer one: We have to acknowledge that a problem exists. Too often we only acknowledge problems until they affect us. If you’re Stanford educated like me, a lot of things that are affecting the majority of people in the state won’t affect you. So you have to broaden your horizons and educate yourself.

Focusing on solutions. lots of times it’s really easy to demonize, to point fingers. It’s easier to get people to come together and collaborate when it’s not “Me vs. You. You’re a horrible person.” But instead “this outcome is horrible, what can we do together to fix it?”

And then, we need to use best practices. It isn’t a question of “we don’t know what to do.” Is it then a question of political will? Capacity? Why aren’t we doing it?

I’m remembering a quote by Fannie Lou Hamer (civil rights activist). She was speaking about violence but I think it’s true for everything. She said, “until the nation cares as much about a black boy in Mississippi as a white boy in Mississippi we will never have justice.”

Until we realize we’re all in this together and whether that kid is first generation American, English language learner from Laos, undocumented, black, Hispanic, rural white. Those kids are our children and until we get serious about their future California won’t continue to see the prosperity we’ve enjoyed over the past several years.

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