The End of California: Has the American Dream State Finally Reached Its Rude Awakening?

California sign composite
The American Dream never gleamed any brighter than in the Golden State. But these days, that warm glow might just be a dumpster fire.The Sporting Press

Every U.S. state has its own romanticized identity. New York is the high-energy center of high culture. Wisconsin is the land of beer and cheese. Texas is full of things that are bigger than the things in other places. But no state in the country has been more romanticized, in more ways, than California.

Endless beaches strewn with surfer babes. A perfect climate that nurtures the nation’s television and movie stardust factories. As many breathtaking national parks as New Jersey has clogged turnpikes. California was glorified even before it became our 31st state, when the gold rush of the mid-1800s saw San Francisco grow from a sleepy outpost to one of the biggest cities in the country. Eighty years later, in America’s largest-ever migration, 200,000 dust bowl farmers abandoned their heartland homes and headed to California’s verdant farmland.

In fact, the state experienced such a steady flow of optimistic newcomers for so many years that today, one in eight Americans calls California home.

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Never mind that those seekers often didn’t find the land of plenty they’d envisioned (see The Karate Kid), and that indigenous inhabitants were massacred and wiped out by disease courtesy of all the new arrivals. The Golden State continued to burnish its gleaming allure as an easy-living utopia where riches and fame waited behind every swaying palm.

These days, however, shocking headlines speak louder than any celebrity-spiked tourism pitch. For every towering sequoia, there’s a towering wildfire. For every personal freedom, there’s a political embarrassment. And for every Elon Musk, there’s…well, also Elon Musk. Remarkably, the U.S. Census Bureau found that California’s population grew slower than the rest of the country over the last decade and, in 2020, actually shrunk. So, one has to ask, is this the end of the California dream?

Airplane putting out wildfire
Half the state is seemingly on fire at any given moment. The Sporting Press

ENVIRONMENT

The Dream: Californians genuinely care about the environment—and more important, they put their money where their mouths are. In September, the state government passed a massive $15 billion package to fight climate change, and before that California was the first big state to pledge to use 100 percent renewable and clean energy by the middle of the century. Any American currently driving a hybrid or electric car should thank California, which instituted fuel standards and goosed markets to help make cleaner transportation an ever-expanding part of everyday life.

The Reality: Remember smog? The ozone-laden, asthma-inducing air pollution was once a common punch line when discussing Los Angeles, but now all of those cleaner vehicles have eliminated it. Just kidding—last year, thanks in part to oppressive heat, the city saw its worst smog pollution since the mid-1990s. In fact, the American Lung Association’s latest data found that six of the 10 cities with the worst year-round particulate air pollution are in California, as are seven of the 10 cities with the worst ozone pollution.

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“What is almost completely lost is that we’re a legacy oil- and gas-producing state,” says Danny Cullenward, policy director at the nonprofit climate research firm CarbonPlan. “Their lobbying capacity greatly eclipses the capacity of others, and it’s hard to build meaningful coalitions to change incumbent industries.”

Another factor contributing to awful overall air quality: Half the state is seemingly on fire at any given moment. Every year becomes the new worst year on record for epic, raging wildfires as the effects of climate change compound decades of suppressing small fires (to protect new development edging further and further into the wilderness), a practice that basically allows forests to fill with billions of matches. As time passes, the fires get bigger and hotter—and burn ever higher into the mountains—due to warming temperatures.

Water tends to be useful when putting out fires, so it’s a shame California no longer has any. The entire state is currently in some phase of drought, much of it severe. Earlier this year, a hydroelectric plant at Lake Oroville ceased operation for the first time in more than 50 years because there simply wasn’t enough water to run it. In the spring, an estimated 90 percent of the Chinook salmon run died on the way to spawn because the species’ usual waterways had become far too shallow and warm. And farmland in the Central Valley is literally sinking because the underground aquifers below it have been sucked dry.

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QUALITY OF LIFE

The Dream: All the songs aren’t wrong: Southern California is, in fact, sunny almost all of the time, and it’s hard to find a better place to enjoy a smoothie. Thanks to the Central Valley, which grows 40 percent of the nation’s food, Californians enjoy uber-fresh produce all year round.

The Reality: Before someone can call California home, they need to find an actual home. Good luck, since the state is in the midst of an endless housing crisis that has seen the price of a house soar to more than twice the national average. Experts estimate that over the past decade, the state has built only half the number of new homes it needs to keep up with demand. Low-income earners spend a crippling average of 60 percent of their paychecks on rent.

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While 12 percent of all Americans live in California, so do 27 percent of the country’s homeless people—and their plight isn’t improving. In cities like Los Angeles, many highway underpasses shelter an encampment of tents and tarps. L.A.’s infamous Skid Row, a 2.7-square-mile part of downtown, officially has about 4,700 residents—and as many as 8,000 additional people sleeping on the sidewalks. Between 2018 and 2019, the last year for which official data is available, L.A.’s homeless population increased a startling 13 percent. Some advocates believe it rose as much as 30 percent more during the pandemic.

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Neighborhoods with affordable housing often sit in the shadow of industrial plants and refineries that technically adhere to California law by offsetting their carbon emissions—by funding carbon-reduction projects elsewhere, even out of state. That doesn’t do the people living near the pollution, who may suffer respiratory difficulty and even bizarre rashes, much good. There can be so much lead present in these neighborhoods that it’s dangerous for children to play in their own yards.

The quality-of-life gap between rich and poor is only getting worse. Income inequality in California has for decades risen faster than the U.S. as a whole, and the state now has the sixth-largest level of income inequality in the country. One reason? In recent years the cost of living has caused many middle-income earners to leave the state altogether.

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Many propositions are simply some Yahoo’s harebrained scheme. The Sporting Press

GOVERNMENT

The Dream: It’s not that California is super liberal, it’s that the state embraces popular policies quicker than others.

Lawmakers were among the first in the nation to legalize gay marriage and marijuana, institute gun control measures, and take significant steps to protect the environment. If that sounds like Commie-fornia government overreach, think again: Letting people marry whomever they want, legal pot, environmental protections and sensible gun control laws are all supported by far more than 50 percent of U.S. voters.

The Reality: California politics are an open sewer on a hot day. More than $275 million of taxpayer money was spent this year on a pointless recall election, spearheaded by Trump Republicans, that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom won by a ridiculous 30 points. The pricey political theater was made possible by the state’s constitution, which makes initiating a recall election easier than getting sunburned in Death Valley.

Meanwhile, the many ballot initiatives Californians vote on every election cycle—an initiative, or proposition, is a yes/no vote that can alter the state’s constitution—sometimes create preposterous laws because many props are simply some yahoo’s harebrained scheme.

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“While the initiative process is rooted in the idea that voters should have the ultimate power in government, what’s happened is that anyone with a few million dollars to pay signature gatherers can qualify an initiative,” says Rose Kapolczynski, an L.A.-based Democratic strategist and consultant who’s helped guide several winning initiatives.

Even well-meaning initiatives can backfire spectacularly. In 1978, Proposition 13 aimed to prevent people from losing their homes due to skyrocketing property taxes. But it also gave massive tax breaks to businesses and wealthy landowners while simultaneously impoverishing local schools and governments. Most Californians agree this needs to be fixed, but when a prop came up in 2020 to repeal tax giveaways to corporations, voters rejected it. Why? They feared their own property taxes would be raised next.

THE OUTDOORS

The Dream: California boasts nine national parks—more than any other state—thanks to its astounding array of natural wonders, from Bono’s beloved Joshua Tree to the unique animals and plants of the Channel Islands to the iconic beauty of Yosemite Valley. For millions of people who live along the state’s 3,400 miles of coastline, it’s entirely possible to surf and snowboard on the same day—and then spend all night getting weird out in the desert.

The Reality: Natural wonders are generally less enjoyable when they’re engulfed in flame. As a result, all of the state’s national parks were closed for a couple weeks this past September due to fires, and the damage is lasting. A single wildfire last year killed more than 10 percent of the world’s large sequoia trees, according to the National Park Service. And park visitors were already doing a decent job of harming the trees, whose shallow roots are vulnerable to car and foot traffic. And traffic there is. When the parks are open in peak seasons, campgrounds can be so crowded they resemble disaster zones.

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It’s no better in urban settings. Storm drains on L.A. city streets feature a stencil that reads “NO DUMPING / DRAINS TO OCEAN” because runoff in L.A.—and other coastal cities in the state—pours straight into the ocean without being treated. The stencil also features a dolphin jumping out of the water, presumably to avoid the noxious slurry of pollutants that prompts savvy residents to avoid the ocean for at least a few days after a big rain.

“Because of the ways currents work, only the northern California coast is subject to larger influxes of trash from across the Pacific,” explains Eben Schwartz, the marine debris program manager for the California Coastal Commission. “As you go south, what you find are much more highly urbanized areas, and that’s where the vast majority of trash is coming from there.”

In other words, trash piles up on Cali beaches no matter what. Every year, Schwartz and the commission organize a statewide beach cleanup effort. In just a half a day, about 75,000 volunteers remove between 300 and 400 tons of trash.

On the bright side, cleanup volunteers may not have to clean trash off the beaches forever—rising sea levels could swamp 60 percent of the state’s beaches by the end of the century.

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THE ECONOMY

The Dream: California is a powerhouse. The state has the fifth-largest economy in the world, behind only China, Japan, Germany and the collective U.S. That’s in part because several of the world’s most valuable and innovative companies— from Apple to Chevron to SpaceX—are headquartered in the state. At 53 each, only New York has as many Fortune 500 companies as California.

The Reality: It’s no secret that California’s tech industry is, in complex economic jargon, going frickin’ bananas. But most of the state’s 40 million people do not work at Facebook or Google, and in the wake of the pandemic, less-than-cutting-edge jobs have failed to bounce back.

“While the state economy overall is doing well,” says Jerry Nickelsburg, a professor of economics at UCLA, “there are sectors such as those that provide services to tourists that have not recovered and that likely won’t recover in the near term. And no one should minimize that fact.”

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And nothing guarantees that California will remain the sweet spot for Big Tech. Elon Musk announced in a huff last year that he was moving Tesla to Texas after the company’s Fremont-based plant was shut down due to California’s strict Covid restrictions. Musk defied the orders and reopened—and Alameda County public health officer Erica Pan just let it slide. Sound kinda strange? No more than the fact that Newsom, who no doubt feared Musk moving 10,000 Tesla jobs to Texas while rage-tweeting about California’s anti-business policies, soon promoted Pan to state epidemiologist.

After seemingly relenting, Musk has again announced a corporate, and personal, relocation to Texas. Already, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Oracle and dozens of other companies have moved their HQs to states with lower costs of living, less regulation and lower corporate tax rates. California’s corporate income tax stands at 8.84 percent—the seventh highest in the U.S. Individual income taxes are the highest in the country at up to 13.3 percent.

THE FUTURE

But, hey, we’re talking about a land that’s always been characterized by optimism and innovation. If any place on the map can, California can star in its own come-back story and untangle its politics, foster more affordable and sustainable housing, and even invent bold new ways to manage water and fire. Then again…when even Disney, the icon of California icons, announces it’s relocating 2,000 more jobs to its Florida campuses, one has to wonder: If enough of the things we romanticize about California change, is it still California?

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