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  • Tim Arango and Thomas Fuller, New York Times

In prosperous California, anxiety over inequality abounds

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Mark Marquez, a retired Border Patrol agent, had hoped to keep his extended family intact in the same part of central California where his parents and grandparents had worked the watermelon fields.

Yet the state’s high cost of living is threatening to pull the family apart. His son, a truck driver, is vowing to move from California to Oregon to live on a river and grow cannabis. And his own financial straits have left him wondering about his future.

“I pay the bills and I have nothing extra,” said Marquez, 59, who gets by on a $2,200 monthly pension and has no savings to draw on. “I have to hustle here and there. I am living paycheck to paycheck. And almost everyone I know is doing that.”

The affordability crisis in California has sent families fleeing from high-cost places like San Francisco, where the average apartment rents for above $4,000. Yet the crisis also reverberates well inland, affecting communities like Bakersfield and Stockton that are not known for their glitz.

By one measure, the housing crisis is even more acute for residents of California’s agricultural Central Valley, where 38% of people pay more than 30% of their household income in rent.

As the state prepares to vote in the Super Tuesday primaries, the unaffordability crisis — wide-scale homelessness, poverty and the stress of making ends meet — has emerged as a foundational issue, one to which many Americans can relate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has built a large organization in California and has campaigned extensively in the state, including at a rally in Bakersfield recently, has a commanding lead in polls, underscoring how his campaign theme of inequality has resonated with Democrats in California. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed Sanders at 34% in California, double the support of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is in second place, according to the poll.

Sanders opened his Bakersfield rally by framing the election as a contest to see whether America will have “a government or economy that represents all of us, or whether or not we have an economy and government that represents the rich and powerful.” He later referred to the “obscene level of income and wealth inequality that exists in America” and vowed to tackle homelessness and affordable housing, two paramount issues for Californians.

California has by far the largest number of delegates to the Democratic convention — it is sending 50% more delegates than the second-largest delegation, New York — and the anxiety of its voters will resonate well beyond the state’s borders. The state’s decision to move its primary to Super Tuesday, three months earlier than in 2016, will only serve to make California’s voice more decisive.

On paper, California, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, may look rich, but it does not feel rich to the residents who work two or three jobs to pay the rent or who spend four hours a day commuting to them. Nearly 150,000 homeless people sleep on sidewalks, in alleys, on vacant lots and in vehicles, a daily reminder of the state’s pronounced rich-poor divide.

While California is one of the world’s wealthiest places — if it were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest economy — it also has the U.S.’ highest poverty rate when housing costs are factored in.

This means that working-class families, even ones far from the high-cost coastal cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, said that more than ever they are struggling to raise their children. Saving for retirement is a pipe dream, many said, with the costs of everyday living so high.

Take Bakersfield, a city that has long been stereotyped as a place of smog and economic malaise. There are newfound signs of prosperity all around downtown — new townhomes, a hipster coffee shop and an old bank building built in 1910 in the beaux-arts style converted into a restaurant offering farm-to-table dishes from the bountiful agricultural fields in the region.

Yet the city was recently ranked the worst place in America to raise children in a study by Brandeis University, which examined factors such as air quality, experience level of teachers, commuting times and poverty levels. In fact, four of the five worst places for families in America were inland areas of California, the study showed. The other three are Fresno, Stockton and Riverside.

“Ideally, we’d like to move completely out of state,” said Raeann Haggard, 29, who lives in Bakersfield with her wife and three foster children. Haggard said that two of those children suffer from asthma and that the smog of Bakersfield makes them sick, especially in the hot summer months.

“Their quality of life, I feel, is horrible during the summer and spring,” she said. “They can’t play outside.”

Rising gas and health care prices — which collide for her family because she has to take the children outside of Bakersfield for frequent medical appointments — have pinched the household budget. She had to give up the family’s cherished season passes to Disneyland and sell her Chevy Silverado truck because it was such a gas guzzler. Haggard said she will vote in the Democratic primary, but she would not say for whom.

Meanwhile, Stockton, an impoverished city east of San Francisco that was one of the hardest-hit places during the 2008 economic crisis, has been testing a universal basic income program, giving 125 residents $500 per month. It is an idea that was championed by Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur who dropped out of the presidential race in February.

“Cost of living just keeps going up, up, up, and the wages didn’t keep up with that,” said Virginia Medina, 62, who has been receiving the extra income and using it to pay down credit card bills. Medina voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and said she will do so again. (In 2016, Hillary Clinton won big in California, receiving more than 4 million more votes than Trump.)

In San Francisco, a liberal city awash in tech industry riches, the inequality crisis is particularly acute. The city has a budget larger than those of many countries. Yet the public school district is preparing to lay off teachers.

Greg Espy earns $25 an hour working security for the school district. He also coaches football. But to get to school on time he needs to leave his house in Pittsburgh, across the Bay from San Francisco, at 4:30 a.m. Gas and tolls alone cost him $6,000 a year, a big chunk of his salary.

“California is now for the rich,” Espy said. “That’s my conclusion.”

He is feeling apathetic about Tuesday’s primary and has not decided on a candidate.

“I know no one is looking out for us,” he said. “That’s not the way the world works.”

Michelle Cody, a middle school math teacher, earns $70,000 a year. But that is not nearly enough to rent an apartment for herself and her son. She is back with her parents, crammed into the San Francisco home she grew up in. “I can’t afford to live alone,” she said.

Cody said she had not made up her mind but was leaning toward Sanders or Warren — definitely not Mike Bloomberg, she said, because of his stop-and-frisk policies when he was mayor of New York.

The average teacher’s salary in the San Francisco public school system is $65,000, according to Susan Solomon, a kindergarten teacher who is now president of the teachers’ union. That money might go a long way in other states but not in the Bay Area.

“The notion of buying a house is so remote for most of our educators,” Solomon said.

On Feb. 19 the superintendent of the San Francisco public schools, Vincent Matthews, sent a note to staff announcing that budget cuts of $26 million would force layoffs. The union took to the streets to protest.

“To see the wealth around us and to not even be able to meet the basic needs of our students,” Solomon said. “It’s just astonishing.”

Up and down California, there is a familiar lament: that growing inequality and crushing economic anxiety, combined with the deep political polarization that is felt across the country, have led to an erosion of community and a feeling that nobody is looking out for one another.

“We live in such a beautiful place, and everyone is overly engaged in their phones or in feeling angry,” said Sylvie Boland, a personal trainer in the Bay Area.

Far across the state, in Bakersfield, Marquez said he felt much the same way. While growing up in a farm labor community in the Central Valley, he said, everybody helped each other out: “If this neighbor had a 100-pound sack of potatoes, everyone had potatoes. If this neighbor slaughtered a cow or a hog, everyone had meat. Those times are gone.”

Marquez, whose son said he is planning to move to Oregon, still hopes that his family — which has been in Bakersfield for four generations — will stay in the region.

He was undecided about which Democratic candidate he would vote for in the primary, but Marquez said he understood the anxiety expressed by his son and other relatives. “I’d like to keep them close,” he said. “But I know what he’s saying is a reality.”

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