For roughly 100 years, California was America’s synecdoche: the part of the country that best represented its whole. It was town and country, coastal metropolis and interior farmland, opportunity and freedom. It was Hollywood, the defense industry, and the high-tech economy. Its people were both high-achieving and laid-back, able to enjoy the state’s natural bounty, from the beaches and cliffs to the forests and Sierras. California boasted a pioneering public education system, in which every child, no matter how poor, could receive a good education. It had affordable suburbs, built around nuclear families. It was growing, quadrupling its population after World War II. In a word, California represented progress.
Now the state has become America’s shadow self. True, it is more prosperous than ever, surpassing Germany last year to become the world’s fourth-largest economy. But Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and smaller cities are today overrun by homeless encampments, which European researchers more accurately describe as “open drug scenes.” Crime has become so rampant that many have simply stopped reporting it, with nearly half of San Franciscans telling pollsters that they were a victim of theft in the last five years and a shocking one-quarter saying that they had been assaulted or threatened with assault.
These pathologies are just the most visible manifestations of a deeper rot. Less than half of California’s public school students are proficient in reading, and just one-third are proficient in math (with a stunning 9 percent of African-Americans and 12 percent of Latinos in L.A. public schools proficient in eighth-grade math). Education achievement declined precipitously in California in 2021, as the state kept children studying at home well after kids in other states had returned to the classroom. Californians pay the most income tax, gasoline tax, and sales tax in the United States, yet suffer from electricity blackouts and abysmal public services. Residential electricity prices grew three times faster in 2021 than they did in the rest of the United States. And the state government, dependent on income taxes, faces a projected $23 billion budget deficit that will only grow if the nation’s economy enters a recession. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given these trends, California’s population stopped expanding in 2014 and has slightly declined since, resulting in the loss of a congressional seat after the 2020 Census.
Homelessness and disorder loom as the biggest problems. Most of the assaults and threats that San Franciscans reported came from the city’s large number of homeless and mentally ill addicts, who are allowed to sleep, defecate, and use drugs in public. Los Angeles is in even worse shape, as the city is so much larger than San Francisco and the local government is, against stereotype, even more progressive. Skid Row can no longer contain its massive population of street homeless; the city’s government has all but legalized open-air drug dealing and use. Over the last decade, homelessness increased 43 percent in California, even as it fell 7 percent nationally.
Some signs of hope seem to have emerged on this front. Since taking office in December 2022, the new mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, has worked to shut down drug markets and tried to move people into shelter and housing through a program called “Inside Safe.” Venice Beach voters elected as mayor a moderate named Traci Park, who worked with Bass to move street-dwellers inside. San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, closed an experimental government-funded drug-consumption site in June, responding to complaints from residents, business leaders, and mothers of homeless addicts. In November 2022, San Franciscans elected a majority of moderates to the city’s governing board of supervisors, who, like the mayor, favor stronger action to remove self-destructive addicts from the streets. Those changes followed a voter recall earlier that year of a radical district attorney, Chesa Boudin, whose policies of de-prosecution encouraged disorder.
But there is less than meets the eye to these developments. Bass’s office reports that just 31 homeless people in Hollywood, and fewer than 100 in Venice, had been moved inside between December 11, 2022, and January 21 of this year. For context, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there were 41,290 total homeless in Los Angeles in 2020, of whom 70 percent were “unsheltered”—living in tents or cardboard boxes on sidewalks and underneath overpasses. Voters increased the progressive majority on the Los Angeles City Council and tossed out the sheriff of Los Angeles County, who had advocated a tougher response to crime, drugs, and violence, in November 2022. In San Francisco, a judge halted efforts to move the city’s vulnerable homeless indoors before torrential rains pounded the state for weeks; the judge had sided with a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city. And six months after closing the drug-consumption site, Mayor Breed and the Board of Supervisors announced in early January that they intended to open 12 new sites across the city. In the state’s two major cities, significant improvement on crime, drugs, and homelessness is unlikely under current political leadership.
What explains California’s dramatic decline? And what would it take for the state to return to its former greatness?