Is The American Dream Dead in Northern California?

In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams said the American dream mandates that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. But what does that actually mean?

For some, the vagueness of the American dream concept makes it difficult to quantify. Identifying a more specific metric of focus would offer a clearer picture of American opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for all people. journalist Kim-Mai Cutler delivered a presentation at’s BIL Oakland 2016: Recession Generation event on July 9, in which she focused on the intersection between opportunity, technology, and land. To address this intersection, she referenced the research of Stanford University economist Raj Chetty.

Figure 1

Chetty analyzed the family income records of 40 million children over the past 20 years and calculated the likelihood of a child born into the poorest 20 percent (lowest quintile) of society reaching a higher quintile in income. Isolating geography as a determining factor, Chetty found that, for example, the city of San Jose provides the best opportunities for a poor child to reach the 80th percentile in income distribution, compared to all other cities across the country. This is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 2

Despite this, Figure 2 shows a trend reflected statewide and across the United States wherein median wages are increasing, but poverty is also on the rise, and homeownership is falling.

This trend in Santa Clara County flies in the face of conventional thinking, whereby poverty should decrease as incomes and opportunities multiply. If people are making more money, yet are less able purchase a home, the home price must be rising faster than the wage.

Figure 3

Similarly, apartment rent is skyrocketing. There is a lot of job growth, which would tend to indicate that labor is more in demand and that incomes will be higher, but most of the new jobs do not pay well – most make less than 50 percent of the average median income (AMI), as seen in Figure 3.

To add insult to injury, Figure 4 shows that many lower-wage workers fall well short of average asking rents, and are therefore unable to work and live in the same area. These people must either cohabitate or commute long distances in order to secure housing that they can afford.

Figure 4

These are direct consequences of Proposition 13, which greatly limits property taxation in the state of California. Proposition 13 defines what a parcel of real estate can be taxed, how much that tax can grow annually, and when the parcel’s value can be reassessed. Over time, this has created severe market distortions, as developers have no incentive to build additional housing that is affordable. This ultimately limits housing supply, forces workers to commute further from the urban centers, and leads to additional sprawl.

How does this all affect upward mobility? For starters, family commute times correlate with a child’s future success and earnings. Figure 5, from Chetty’s study, shows that a transit time of 15 minutes or less significantly correlates with a child’s upward mobility.

Figure 5

If the American dream is precipitated by upward mobility from one income quintile to the next, it is becoming an unattainable dream for an increasing percentage of the population. Without significant policy change, it will become impossible for many families to escape wage slavery.

Remedies do exist – some to resolve the problem altogether, and others to mitigate it. Metro San Francisco has seen a significant growth of working professionals choosing cohabitation, as well as the tiny house movement of 100-400 square-foot spaces. Unfortunately, these behaviors do not address the structural inequities and land misuse created by the current policy environment and Proposition 13.

With this in mind, it would be sensible for new housing construction in the Bay area to occur where economic activity is most concentrated, namely downtown San Francisco. Downtown areas tend to have the greatest land values, but traditional strategies for construction in the city center tend to be very expensive, politically treacherous, or otherwise ineffective. While cohabitation and tiny houses might make the area more affordable for a few, government must incentivize urban development in high-demand areas to effectively turn the tide of this crisis. To this end, the city and state must consider a Land Value Tax.

The economist Henry George documented this phenomenon of market exclusion 137 years ago in his seminal work Progress and Poverty. George demonstrated how rent increases faster than wages, and to expedite new construction, he recommended eliminating taxes on work and consumption and shifting the source of revenue to Land Value Taxation. His idea was to encourage landowners and developers to increase residential and commercial space in order to pay the Land Value Tax, while generating a respectable return and providing value to others. Land Value Taxation naturally becomes even more effective wherever land values are higher, like the urban core of cities. Implemented in cities, Land Value Taxation leads to a substantial increase in both living and working space.

California faces a unique challenge due to the limits imposed by Proposition 13, and overcoming this would require a difficult voter-approved constitutional amendment to completely overhaul the property tax system. State legislators and regional and city planners would be remiss not to consider a Land Value Tax, which has had demonstrated success in increasing residential space in the United States and abroad.


Watch Kim-Mai Cutler’s presentation below:


Images: Keynote presentation by Kim-Mai Cutler at BIL Oakland: Recession Generation 2016


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