Why the Migrant's Dream Has Ended in California

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

Job seekers wait in line at the California Job Journal HIREvent in San Francisco..

Ever since the Joads left Oklahoma's Dust Bowl in 1939 and set out for California, people have been flocking to the most populous state in the nation for what seems to have been a limitless pool of jobs. As Steinbeck's characters discovered the employment boom in California is often less spectacular than migrant's have been led to believe.

There are, and have been, jobs in the state, but that number does not at this point match the number of job seekers. (See pictures of unemployment.)

Over the last five decades, the population of California has tripled. There is probably no other state in the country with such a significant diversity of people whether measured by ethnicity, place of birth, or income.

The abundance of industries and multitude of talents in the workforce should make California a bastion of job creation and security. As a matter of fact, the state is just the opposite of that.

The unemployment rate in California moved up to 10.1% in January. That figure may seem extraordinary but it is astonishing when measured against the December figure of 8.7%. According to the AP, the number of people without jobs in the state was 1.8 million in the first month of this year compared with 754,000 in January 2008. All of these figures are almost certainly undercounted because of the large numbers of illegal aliens who have come into the state, mostly from Mexico. The competition for jobs between citizens and those who have recently crossed the border in search of work is almost certainly increasing, which is likely to cause alarming confrontations among the jobless.

The most sobering aspect of rising joblessness in California is that it is not the by-product of a downturn in one business sector. Layoffs have come from industries as diverse as technology, hospitality, finance, construction, and retail. Put another way, the firestorm has not spared anything.

One of the most bewildering things about what has happened in California is that there are very few places in the world that has its tax base. The state has had a cornucopia of wealthy industries, some, like the huge hardware and software sectors, which have only existed as large employers for two decades.

California may be lighting the way ahead for the rest of the failing U.S. economy. If so, one of the prominent features of its decline is that the government could not prevent it. The easy argument against that view is that a state cannot print money to sustain its economy. That is true, but there still is not any proof that printing money at the federal level will buy the country out of a pathological state which is destroying sixty years of the fruits of American capitalism.

The stimulus package will pour a balm of money into California and it will speak volumes if that does little or nothing to help the state escape from its calamitous circumstances. California has held a place at the head of the national economy since the Great Depression. If that is still true, it should deprive the nation of some of the hope it still has that the recession is reaching bottom.

Douglas A. McIntyre

Read about the 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.

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