If California wants to curb poverty, its local governments must get rich.
That may be the most important lesson in Stockton’s recent history, as Stanford Law School professor Michelle Wilde Anderson, a scholar of poverty and local government, recounts in her Zócalo Book Prize-winning book, The fight to save the city.
Anderson expertly portrays the challenges of four troubled American towns, including Stockton. Her work is remarkable for how she connects the dots between the poverty of the people and the poverty of our local governments.
Anderson begins by detailing a woefully underappreciated Californian and American problem: the deep declines over decades in federal and state support for local governments. The cuts have been especially deep at the community level. Between 1979 and 2016, the author points out, federal funding for neighborhood development decreased by 80%.
Cities with many businesses and wealthy residents can weather these storms. But the trend has been devastating for municipalities and rural places with high percentages of poor residents, who have less to offer in tax and fee revenue, and who desperately need local programs, in areas like health, recreation and crime prevention, that they are trimmed. . Local governments responded by borrowing, cutting services and staff, selling public land, and raising taxes and fees, all measures that hurt local residents.
“When local governments are populated primarily by low-income people, there is typically much less money for public services,” Anderson writes. “Weak and bankrupt local governments make it difficult for residents to lead a decent life on low income or lift their families out of poverty. Entire towns become poverty traps.”
One such poverty trap is Stockton, which Anderson describes both before and after its 2012 bankruptcy, then the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.
Stockton, a city of 322,000 on the southern tip of the California Delta, is one of the oldest and most diverse places in the state. Their story is too long and complicated to tell here, but segregation, drug trafficking, police violence, overreliance on the military, and long commutes (to Bay Area jobs) have been major factors in disrupt the lives of its people, impoverishing neighborhoods, and making Stockton a “city of orphans,” Anderson writes.
The story he tells is both encouraging, showing the ability of local people and officials to make progress in the most difficult circumstances, and also sobering, because progress is so tenuous.
Stockton’s government has long failed to address such issues. Faced with waning federal and state support, the city subsidized developers instead of investing in existing community members. It pursued new residents, visitors, and tax revenue by building retail, new housing, and tourist attractions in its center. And he prioritized local government employees and their unsustainable health and retirement pension programs, some of which were financed with debt.
The strategy fell apart in the Great Recession, with record foreclosures and the failure of high-profile developments. Gifts from the city to its powerful local government employees overwhelmed its budget. The results? Layoffs (including 20% of police officers, 38% of public works employees, 46% of library staff, and 56% of recreation staff), huge cuts to programs, and the 2012 bankruptcy.
Anderson’s book is deeply interested in how community groups, nonprofit organizations, and a new generation of local officials, led by Michael Tubbs, a Stanford-educated twenty-something councilman turned mayor, responded after bankruptcy. The story he tells is both encouraging, showing the ability of local people and officials to make progress in the most difficult circumstances, and also sobering, because progress is so tenuous.
What worked best were the intense and multifaceted efforts to empower residents to solve problems in South Stockton neighborhoods after decades of stigma and disinvestment.
Working together, local officials, nonprofit organizations, and community groups listened to residents and followed their priorities. This work, carried out primarily by individuals involved in the Reinvent South Stockton Coalition (RSSC), began with the cleanup and reclamation of public spaces, first shoring up a park and then closing an open-air drug market near a liquor store. Community members opened a clinic that offered mental health resources. And Tubbs and other allies led the way by taking a series of big and small steps focused on treating and reducing the trauma felt by local residents.
Poor cities, the scholar concludes, often cut off everything except emergency services and public safety, leaving them without the fundamental ingredients that fight poverty: mental health resources, a sense of personal security, access to living-wage jobs, and safe housing. “Our theory of change,” an RSSC leader tells Anderson, “is investing in people. We have to change the language from people’s problems to their assets.”
South Stockton, and the city as a whole, saw significant gains from this work, though it’s far from clear whether the progress can be sustained. Tubbs and his allies lost their 2020 re-election bids. The pandemic undermined local systems and community projects. The founder of a major group, Padres y Familias de San Joaquin, was arrested, undermining trauma recovery work.
Anderson is clear-eyed about the need to change the structure and organization of local government. One of his suggestions for places like Stockton is to “change jurisdiction,” which could mean moving around municipal lines or combining cities into regional units. He also argues that we need new ways of thinking and talking about cities in trouble, not as “hellholes” that are “dying,” but as places that, with the right resources and new structures for residents, can enrich poor residents. .
In California, I would go even further than Anderson and suggest that empowering cities requires restructuring the state itself. California, since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, has become heavily centralized, with fiscal policies and resource allocations for localities largely decided at the state level. Returning power to local governments would require so many different changes to existing policies and budgets that the best way forward would be a new constitution.
Our last two governors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, have championed local government and the fight against poverty, at least rhetorically. Meanwhile, both men centralized more power in their offices and avoided constitutional reform. Fighting poverty in this state requires politicians at the state level to do the exact opposite and put more resources and power in the hands of the people, their communities and their local governments.