Just weeks before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about “the other America.” While “one America is flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” there is another America with “a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.
Fifty years later, we still face these two Americas, and here we have the two Californias – one coastal and thriving, one inland and still suffering the effects of the Great Recession.
That’s why we need to refocus our attention on economic equality – and retool our policies to make sure that California is creating high-wage jobs everywhere.
A key start in this process is rethinking our one-size-fits-all approach to economic policy and regulation. A policy that might make sense in Silicon Valley doesn’t necessarily make a difference in Fresno. A regulation that is a small annoyance for a thriving business on the west side of Los Angeles could be a job killer for an industry in Watts.
We certainly need to set big economic goals, but then give each of our economic regions the tools and autonomy they need to grow our economy fairly. We once enabled “enterprise zones,” which were largely county based. These zones were swept away in the last recession when Sacramento took the funds that were dedicated to local economic development to help close a statewide budget gap.
While we have taken the limited step of restoring some local infrastructure financing, we need to be bolder. We need to fully restore those local economic development funds because when it comes to local economic growth, Sacramento doesn’t always know best. And we need to establish broad regional economic opportunity zones and cooperation, so economically challenged areas can work together to attract high-wage jobs.
The facts show the stark disparities in our economic progress. In recent years, the Bay Area accounted for 62 percent of the growth in high-wage jobs in areas like information technology and professional and business services. Many parts of inland California has lost jobs in these high-wage sectors.
When I served as speaker of the state Assembly, I was not shy about passing bold new laws and new mandates. But as mayor of Los Angeles, I learned that statewide mandates, regulations and interventions didn’t always make sense from a local perspective. What seemed easy from the Capitol building is a whole lot more complicated up close.
More recently, I proposed restoring the ability of local governments to keep local funds to invest in the creation of housing for teachers, nurses, firefighters and others.
Now, it is time to give a similar power to those parts of our state facing another challenge – slow economic growth and a lack of high-wage jobs.
These new prosperity zones need the power to keep local funds local. They need the ability to adapt regulations to local realities while continuing to meet statewide goals. Most of all, they need the authority to act together as regional economies to help lift up every family in every part of California.
Dr. King said, “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
The challenge facing California in the years ahead is making sure that abundance extends to every part of our great state so that we are making economic progress for everyone.
Antonio Villaraigosa is former Mayor of Los Angeles and current candidate for California Governor.