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How Will Obama’s Take on Income Inequality Play in the Bay Area?

| January 29, 2014
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President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address hit on some big themes, including income inequality — an issue particularly important in the Bay Area.

Soaring rents are pricing lower-income residents out of booming Bay Area locations, and activists have taken to targeting private tech buses during protests to shed light on expanding income inequality here. California politicians — and even conservative activists — are pushing for increases in the minimum wage to bridge some of the income gap.

KQED’s Rachel Dornhelm spoke with David McCuan, a professor of American politics at Sonoma State University, about how this issue and other elements of the speech resonate in the Bay Area.

Listen to the interview or read the full transcript below:

Rachel Dornhelm: The overarching theme of the president’s speech last night was growing income inequality in the country. We hear a lot about tension in San Francisco over Google buses and people being priced out of the area, as well as a housing affordability crisis throughout the area. How does the Bay Area stack up to the rest of the nation on income inequality?

David McCuan: Well, When you look at what’s happened since the Great Recession of 2007, there are elements of the Bay Area economy that have surged ahead. Obviously tech. What we see as the controversy over the Google buses would be a great example of that. However, if you look at what’s happened to the bottom 10th percentile of the population, or the bottom 20th percentile, they’ve been left behind on wages, on benefits, cost of living, housing and so forth, and they’ve been disproportionately left behind since we’ve been measuring these statistics in the late 1970s. So what we’ve really seen is a fundamental disconnect between the top 80th percentile — those folks that are growing in that top element — and those folks at the very bottom. And that is stark, not only in San Francisco, but across different elements of the Bay Area, whether we’re in the East Bay, in the South Bay or the North Bay.

Dornhelm: The president also talked about the minimum wage in his proposal in his speech. Is that a big political issue locally now, too?

McCuan: Certainly. The minimum wage is not only an important issue locally, as we see what’s happening with localities and local governments trying to grapple with increases in the minimum wage, but also within California. The governor (Jerry Brown) signed a bill last year to increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour in California by 2016. And then you have conservative Republican Ron Unz, who also has been promoting a ballot measure to increase the minimum wage to $12 in California. We’ve seen this as well in the Southland and the L.A. basin. But there has been a move to increase the minimum wage to make it a living wage. But the problem there if you look at what it costs a family per month in their family budget to live in San Francisco County, the minimum wage, all these proposals, don’t keep up with just the basic necessities, from child care, transportation, food and so on. And so this disparity has been growing larger and larger. But the focus has moved away from the political graveyard that is Washington, D.C., to Sacramento and localities.

Dornhelm: Were there additional messages in the president’s theme and speech that had local resonance?

McCuan: There certainly are. If you look at widening gaps in education and job access for women, attention to children, these are often areas that get left out in most budgets for politicians. But when you look at what the president talked about for equal pay for women, when you look at increases in educational opportunity, job access, this is a way to lift people out of poverty, and obviously women and children are much more likely to be victims of poverty, and they’ve been left behind largely in the economic recoveries. So the president’s overall theme of pushing, for example, equal pay for equal work and continuing that work that they began earlier in his administration is an important element for California and an important element for what we see in terms of stratification — the income inequality that reaches right down here in the Bay Area as well.

Dornhelm: Thank you very much for talking with me, Dr. McCuan.

McCuan: Thank you very much for having me.

Don Clyde of KQED News contributed to this report.

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About the Author ()

Rachel Dornhelm got her start in radio at WHYY. After anthropology graduate school, Rachel lived in Uzbekistan working with youth near the drying Aral Sea. Rachel returned to radio full-time in 2001. Her work has appeared on WNYC, WBUR, Marketplace, NPR news magazines and KQED. Reach Rachel Dornhelm at rdornhelm@kqed.org.

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