A “New Normal” Fuels Instability — and Inequality — in California

By Anne Price, President

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Under a state of emergency, Californians are watching in dismay as fast-burning fires rage across the state, destroying homes and businesses, scorching tens of thousands of acres, and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate. These fires will continue to burn hotter, longer, and bigger without a concerted, transformational effort to address climate change in California. In the meantime, the short-sighted planned power outages implemented by energy utilities are also posing potentially dire long-term consequences.

Some experts claim the economic and human costs of preemptive power outages are incalculable. Pacific Gas & Electric deems these outages as a “new normal,” necessary to prevent its equipment from sparking a catastrophic fire under high winds and dry conditions. These types of shut-offs could last a decade as the company seeks to modernize its vast network.

While the devastating effects of both fires and outages are being felt by all Californians, they are not affecting them equally. Skyrocketing home prices along the coast have pushed lower-income, struggling residents eastward into the most fire-prone regions of the state, putting them directly in harm’s way. And even as fires strike more affluent communities near the coast, their residents flee while domestic workers and laborers find themselves in danger after showing up, unwarned, for work.

Amid pre-emptive shutoffs, those with the most wealth can independently power their homes and businesses with generators and energy-battery storage. And when disaster does strike, they can rebuild homes sometimes worth more than the ones that burned.

Those who are already struggling the most, however, may never be able to fully recover.

Over the last weekend in October, PG&E cut power to nearly 2 million people, sending families scrambling to keep food from spoiling, shivering in cold houses with no heat sources, exceeding their cellular data limits with no access to wireless internet, and grappling with reduced access to services. On top of that, the shutoffs have left many dealing with lost wages or unforeseen child care bills due to workplace and school closures that kept them from their jobs or their children from school.

While these challenges may pose temporary setbacks for those with resources, they can push struggling families deeper into poverty. And for the most fragile, the power outages themselves can be a matter of life or death, particularly for those who rely on power-controlled medical devices or medications to live.

All of this is happening in a state with the world’s fifth-largest economy — an economy that is also one of the most unequal in the nation. Wage inequality has risen more in California cities than many other states, with seven of the nation’s 15 most economically unequal cities located in the Golden State. More than one in three households in California cannot afford the bare necessities of life without outside help.

Preemptive outages and increasingly devastating fires will likely exacerbate economic and racial inequality in California. And there is one group that is disproportionately affected by these particular drivers of insecurity: Latinx people.

Broadly, Latinx Americans are more susceptible to the effects of climate change because of where they live and work. More than half (55%) of Latinx people in the U.S. live in three states that are already experiencing serious effects related to climate change, California being one of them. Also, Latinx people are more likely to work in the industries that are deeply affected by climate change, such as agriculture, manufacturing, and construction.

For example, Latinx agricultural workers in the wine industry were among the hardest hit by the 2017 fires in Napa and Sonoma counties. And as the latest fires pose more challenges for the region, Latinx people remain particularly exposed to the health risks of working outdoors under smoke-filled skies, as well as lost wages and food from workplace closures and shutoffs.

As detailed in our latest report, Latinx Families in the Golden State: When Working Hard Isn’t Enough, the types of jobs that are putting Latinos on the front lines of climate change are also leaving them financially insecure. Our analysis of census data shows that more than half (52%) of all Latinx households in California — or 1.6 million families — are struggling to pay for housing, put food on the table, and keep the lights on while working full-time at one or more jobs.

Compared to the three other largest racial and ethnic groups in California, Latinx workers are excluded from many of the highest-wage jobs, and even when they do have access to higher-wage jobs, employers pay them less than their white peers. Instead, Latinx workers are placed into jobs such as grounds maintenance, construction, and farming, with low pay and few opportunities for advancement.

When a family is already struggling to meet their very basic needs — as a majority of California’s Latinx families are — the “new normal” that we are now experiencing can be catastrophic. No less disquieting should be the knowledge that, every day, a majority of the families serving as the backbone of our economy, often working in dangerous and unstable conditions, cannot make ends meet.

In a state where the distance between the haves and have nots is widening, it is critical that we take steps to understand the impact different communities are experiencing. We need to aim for a “new normal” where all families have the resources they need to not only get by, but to build a better future and thrive.

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