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A once-in-a-generation opportunity for inclusive, equitable economic development

Each week it becomes clearer that we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change how our economy works — specifically by making it more equitable while making it more resilient.

This opportunity was on full display last week at the California Economic Summit, hosted by California Forward. I joined hundreds of attendees in person, which on its own felt like some return to normalcy.

But what was even more exciting was the energy, ideas, and collaboration to rebuild our economy, not as it was but, rather, for inclusion and justice. As Kate Gordon, now Senior Advisor to Energy Secretary Granholm and formerly on Governor Newsom’s team, said, “the same is not good enough.”

There was a growing chorus at the Summit acknowledging that our economy must work for everyone. Californians agree — and are concerned.

Last week the Public Policy Institute of California released its annual survey of Californians and their economic well-being. Some notable findings include:

  • Seven in 10 say the gap between rich and poor is growing, and nearly two-thirds of Californians fear that gap will widen further by 2030.
  • One in five households had to cut back on food in recent months, and that jumps to one in four for Black or Latino households.
  • Of California workers making less than $40,000 per year, only half say their jobs offer any opportunity for growth, and even fewer say their jobs provide educational or training assistance.
  • Eight in 10 California voters agree that it is important for workers to organize so that employers do not take advantage of them, with Black, Latino, and low-income workers saying so the most.

We are proud to support this survey because our grantees’ work to achieve a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically will not be possible when nearly one-third of California households live in or on the brink of poverty and millions more struggle to make ends meet.

And it’s amoral and unsustainable to accept the racial disparities in our workforce, where 76% of Californians paid the lowest wages are people of color and immigrants (who may live and work in fear) are paid less than native-born workers.

The last 20 months have laid bare the inequities in our economy, as we’ve lurched from crisis to crisis. That’s why it was inspiring to hear nonprofit and public sector leaders at the Summit talk about proactive, inclusive ways to prevent future crises and inequities.

That includes an Irvine grantee, Alex Avila of Just SB, who reminded us that the wisdom of grassroots leaders must be at the center of planning for just and resilient regional economies. “We cannot be at this table and not be heard,” he said, and “it’s transformative to move together as a unit.”

The Irvine Foundation is proud to invest in community-driven efforts that put those voices at the center to design and build regional economies that work for everyone: Just SB and Inland Economic Growth & Opportunity  in Riverside and San Bernardino, and Fresno’s the DRIVE initiative.

These promising models provide a roadmap for regions that can take advantage of a $600 million Community Economic Resilience Fund (CERF) that Governor Newsom recently signed into law. It aims to encourage community, government, business, labor, and other civic leaders to develop blueprints for their region’s economic future to grow industries that will thrive in a carbon-neutral future, create high-quality jobs, and build a more equitable economy that works for all.

Those priorities should be the foundation for deploying the $45 billion in state infrastructure investments included in this year’s recovery budget. And the federal infrastructure package that recently became law could add another astounding $45 billion on top of those state investments.

This unique opportunity requires cooperation between community, government, education, business, labor, social sector, and other civic leaders. It’s a chance to put worker voices at the center, acknowledge and address racism and other barriers, and call upon local leaders to chart a new economic future for their own community.

This sort of systems change will run into resistance. Those whose self-interest is challenged — those who stand to lose power and profits — will resist, and racism, xenophobia, and misogyny stand in the way.

We must stand together and not allow things to go back to business as usual. That’s why we are supporting California Forward and PolicyLink to develop a statewide effort to support communities prepare for, apply for, and implement CERF. We and The California Endowment are organizing a broader group of funders to join this effort. And Irvine is working to see that regional CERF priorities inform the direction of the state and now-approved federal infrastructure funding.

We must act upon this once-in-a-generation opportunity, expanding who has a seat at the table and building a more equitable future together.