California’s coastal urban centers, once the ultimate land of opportunity, suffer notorious traffic congestion, unaffordable housing, and a social chasm defined by a shrinking middle class, a small wealthy sector, and a sizable population seemingly locked in poverty. If there is a future for the region’s middle and upwardly mobile working class, it’s more likely to be found in the state’s large, generally more affordable, interior, known as the Inland Empire, or “the IE.” But for that to happen, the area’s promise needs to be better recognized—and supported—by policymakers.
Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century as a rural area with a few small cities built around affordable land and imported water—San Bernardino, Riverside, Ontario—the Inland Empire evolved as a place where, as the city of Chino’s motto puts it, “Everything Grows.” Over the years, the IE’s burgeoning farm economy attracted Mormons, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Basques, and Russians, and the area was also home to a large Latino workforce. By the end of the twentieth century, the IE was California’s growth hub. More than 300,000 people moved in from the state’s coast between 2007 and 2011, representing America’s largest county-to-county population shift. The IE is now one of the nation’s fastest-growing economies, and Riverside–San Bernardino–Ontario, with 4.5 million residents, is America’s 13th-largest metropolitan statistical area, ahead of Seattle, San Diego, and Denver.
As California’s overall rate of growth falls below the national average for the first time, with Los Angeles itself losing population, the IE continues to attract migrants, particularly families. It has remained, according to the American Community Survey, the only large region in the state that exceeds the national average of residents between the ages of 15 and 50 with children. Most of the area’s growth comes from the increased influx of immigrants and minorities, heavily Latino. The IE turned majority Latino in 2017, according to census data.
The Inland Empire also seems well positioned to benefit from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The American Enterprise Institute has found that, since the pandemic began, less dense areas, like the IE, are growing much faster than denser ones. In 2020 so far, for instance, new home sales are up 13 percent in the IE, compared with the same period in 2019, but are down 16 percent in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Though the IE’s larger existing home market has taken a hit, its decline is 50 percent less than that experienced in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
The employment picture is robust, too. Over the past decade, the IE grew its jobs by 25 percent, equaling the Bay Area’s pace and almost doubling that of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Last year, the IE created more jobs than any major metropolitan area in the state.
The Inland Empire’s trajectory, however, is not problem-free, by any means. While jobs are plentiful, high-wage employment has been scarce. Overall income growth has been among the lowest in the country, and wages rank among the lowest of any of the nation’s 50 largest counties. Even as educated professionals have moved to the area, business-service growth has remained tepid, well below that of the Bay Area and, perhaps more important, of key competitor regions such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Salt Lake City. Some 350,000 of the IE’s skilled and non-skilled workers commute daily to the coast for work. According to its 2018 “State of Work in the Inland Empire” report, the Center for Social Innovation at the University of California found that residents of Riverside tend to go to high-priced Orange County, while San Bernardino residents head to Los Angeles. As a result, two IE communities, Corona and Moreno Valley, rank in the top ten nationally for average length of commuting time.
Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His latest book is The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. Karla López del Río is associate director of the Center for Social Innovation at UC Riverside.