OPINION – Federal and state officials were in San Diego recently to celebrate the newly rebuilt West Mission Bay Drive Bridge and the billions in infrastructure funding flowing to projects all over California. Looking beyond the photo op, I see an opportunity to not only repair our roads and bridges but also build a new vision of shared prosperity and quality jobs for all Californians.
It’s not only our infrastructure that is in disrepair. California is among the most productive and richest economies in the world, but we have enormous rates of income inequality, child poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness. Millions of Californians go every day to a job—or multiple jobs—that don’t cover rent, groceries, and other necessities. These challenges are not shared equally: nearly 80% of low-wage workers in our state are people of color and 40% are immigrants. All of this is a sign that our work ethic is strong but our economy is broken.
The good news is that infrastructure investments like the one highlighted in San Diego offer a chance to build an economy that is more equitable and resilient, and that offers more Californians a pathway to the middle class.
There are, of course, barriers to overcome. Most importantly, we must counteract a decades-long legacy of underinvestment in low-income communities—especially Black, Latino, immigrant, tribal, and rural communities—which resulted in infrastructure that worsened inequality and racial segregation.
California can become a place where all communities have the jobs and economic opportunities to thrive. To get there, government leaders at all levels must work toward ensuring that historically disinvested communities have the information, resources, and funding they need to benefit from today’s infrastructure investments. Otherwise, better-resourced communities will once again get more than their fair share. Philanthropy can provide a bridge between the public sector and communities, and can fund efforts to equip community leaders and nonprofits to have their voices heard.
There are already many promising, cross-sector initiatives in need of support. For example, the Port of Long Beach and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California were among the first signers of the Equity in Infrastructure Pledge, which aims to measurably increase the size and scope of infrastructure contracting opportunities won by historically disadvantaged businesses. In the past, minority- and women-owned businesses have won dramatically less in federal spending contracts relative to their share of U.S. business ownership. The Equity in Infrastructure Pledge aims to change that, and additional public agencies throughout California should sign on.
We must counteract a decades-long legacy of underinvestment in low-income communities—especially Black, Latino, immigrant, tribal, and rural communities—which resulted in infrastructure that worsened inequality and racial segregation.
Worker and community voices must drive California’s transformation, and that offers another avenue for public and philanthropic sector support: inclusive economic development. For example, in San Bernardino, a coalition of nine community-based organizations has developed its own “People’s Plan for Economic Inclusion.” Almost 5,000 San Bernardino residents were involved in developing the plan–a roadmap for economic development and job creation that’s tailored to the identified needs and wishes of the local community. This is just one example of community-driven efforts underway statewide, including on a regional level. We must ensure that worker and community voices continue to be centered in these design processes, and that funds flow to projects that truly reflect the will of the people.
We also need to make sure our workforce is ready for the well-paying, quality jobs that will be generated through this economic transition. Workforce development is a key ingredient for ensuring a ready supply of trained workers—particularly those who too often don’t have access to these jobs—to meet the surge in demand. But the United States, as a whole, spends less on job training and support for workers than most other developed countries.
We must scale up successful models that train up low-wage workers so that they’re qualified for higher-paying jobs in in-demand sectors. Models like Women in Non Traditional Employment Roles, based in Los Angeles, which helps low-income women—especially women of color—get trained for construction jobs with competitive wages and benefits. Or the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which runs a Pre-Apprenticeship Readiness Program helping formerly incarcerated individuals get union apprenticeships in skilled sectors, such as renewable energy.
Taken together, these historic investments will position California to simultaneously address pressing infrastructure and climate threats, while also tackling the persistent weaknesses of income and racial inequality. Let’s show the rest of the nation the way forward.
Don Howard is President and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, working toward a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically.