The Big Squeeze: The Decline of America’s California Dream

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The New York Times explains:

California, shown above, has long been the destination of American dreamers from other states. It no longer plays that role; residents are leaving for greener pastures out East. Today, the state is still pulling in foreign immigrants, but the percentage of American-born transplants has shrunk significantly as more people leave the state. There are now about 6.8 million California natives living elsewhere, up from 2.7 million in 1980.

This graph shows the place of birth for each person living in California during each Census. The gray region at the top shows the percentage of California’s population who were native-born Californians living in California. The gray area at the bottom shows the state’s percentage of foreign born residents. The colorful snakes in between show the domestic birth states of California residents at the time of the Censuses. For example, my 12-year-old father moved from Oak Park, Illinois to Altadena, California in 1929, and this graph shows that in the next year’s Census, he and his fellow Illinois-born Californians outnumbered those from any other American state.

For much of the 20th Century, one of the great perquisites of being an American citizen was that you could move to California.

But, like Yogi Berra’s favorite restaurant, it got so popular that nobody goes there anymore, at least not Americans. (If you’re living in Tbilisi, however, it still seems like a great place to move, along with your cousin’s uncle and his nephew’s extended family)

New Yorkers continue to move to California in sizable numbers, but not the rest of the country.

In the comments to my recent Taki’s Magazine article on the lurid mobbed-up failure of the grandiose 1960s plans for a Beverly Hills Country Club, “Golfing with the Fishes,” Jason Sylvester defends my tendency to write the History of America from a San Fernando Valley-centric perspective:

And, since a good many Southern California stories have been important American stories pretty much since William Mulholland solved L.A.’s water problems in 1913, what might seem ongoing geocentric parochialism on Mr. Sailer’s part to some in Taki’s comment section is simply reality: for the most hopeful, grandest upward part of American history, post WWII America, Los Angeles was the promised land; for the deepest, darkest economic depression of American history, Los Angeles (or anywhere in California, for that matter) was…the promised land.

For a huge swath of Americans from about October, 1929 until the L.A. riots in 1992, California was the place to aspire ending up living in: that’s quite a hell of a run. …

“But the war and the decades-long boom that followed extended the California dream to a previously unimaginable number of Americans of modest means. Here [historian Kevin] Starr records how that dream possessed the national imagination … and how the Golden State — fleetingly, as it turns out — accommodated Americans’ “conviction that California was the best place in the nation to seek and attain a better life.”Benjamin Schwarz in The Atlantic.

America’s America, in other words: the place in this vast, great, grand country where the opportunities were a bit better for the talented, the shrewd, the smart, and the lucky, but most of all for those willing to simply show up and hit it hard for 40 hours a week; where everything was a bit cleaner, a bit sharper, and a lot more up-to-date; where industry flourished with smart people and access to the Pacific Ocean making it almost seem easy (almost), and agriculture a matter of planting a seed – of about any kind – and watch whatever was planted sprout in that rich California loam and climate.

Oh, and did we mention the weather?

It was probably inevitable that California would become so expensive that the standard of living would drop, but immigration policy, especially the American Establishment’s failure to enforce laws on the books, sped up the process enormously of making moving to California an unattractive option for other Americans.

Most people have strong powers of putting the best face on things, so this squeezing shut of American citizens’ options on the California Dream has come with relatively few protests. People make up explanations about why … of course I’d much rather move to Phoenix than Los Angeles — I mean, who doesn’t like 110 degree weather? — or to Portland rather than to the San Francisco Bay — Six months without sunshine is a very Zen experience, you know?

Without our abilities to rationalize our disadvantages as being all for the best, we’d be less happy.

But as I get older, I become less of a contrarian and more of a counter-contrarian: of course a sunny and mild climate is a good thing.