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MEDIUM: Clean Energy Jobs Are an Answer, Not the Problem

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By Antonio Villaraigosa

In the wake of the stunning election of Donald Trump, Democratic leaders have been rightly focused on what went wrong—and what we should do next.

I have offered that the best response to bad policy is good policy. We should concentrate on advancing an agenda that creates high-wage jobs and reduces income inequality by focusing on better public schools, better access to career and job skills training, lower-cost college and a targeted investment in infrastructure that creates job growth.

We need to step forward—not step back. That’s why I wanted to respond to a report in which a Democrat I respect said, “there’s some truth” to suggestions that California focuses too much on greenhouse gasses at the expense of poverty.

I disagree.

The proven reality is that focusing on the clean energy we need to address climate change creates high-wage jobs—and in California, it is creating them in the tens of thousands.

According to the Advanced Energy Economy Institute’s 2016 California Advanced Energy Employment Survey, advanced energy employment grew 18 percent last year—almost six times the rate of growth for the overall economy in California. To date, clean energy employs over half a million Californians. While not all of these jobs are middle class jobs—most are. And we can, and must, work to make sure more are. Through community college training and certificates, union apprenticeship programs and even career and technical training in high schools, we build the skilled workforce it takes to keep expanding this clean energy economy—and expand the middle class as we do it.

The reality is that cleaning our environment might be an important cause among the privileged, but it can be a life or death issue for the poor. Low-income Californians are more likely to suffer from cancer and asthma, and they die earlier than wealthier Californians—about 12 to 13 years earlier according to recent research from the Brookings Institution. And one of the key reasons is that they are more likely to live in polluted areas.

Before I launched my campaign for governor, I traveled all over California and went to many places in the Central Valley and Inland Empire that candidates don’t usually visit. I visited places where many folks are struggling to make ends meet. Folks making incomes in the bottom 10 percent in the Inland Empire have seen their income drop by 35 percent since 2007. The gap between rich and poor in the Inland Empire has grown by 40 percent. By some standards, the Central Valley is the most unequal region in the state, with high-wage earners making on average 14 times more than low-wage earners.

While I’m no stranger to poverty—I was raised by my mom in Boyle Heights—I saw a kind of crushing poverty that should have no place in our state or nation.

Yes, our coasts here in California are doing well and some places are even booming. But today, almost six million Californians live in poverty—more than any other state in the union. And five of the top 20 counties in the U.S. for populations living in poverty are in California alone. The top incomes in California have grown about 40 percent since 1980. In contrast, middle incomes have only grown 5 percent—and low incomes have dropped nearly 20 percent.

The answer to poverty is jobs—middle-class jobs. And the way to create the highest paid workers in America is to make sure we have the most skilled workers in America.

That’s why we should be talking more, not less, about the high-wage jobs we can create to address climate change. And, while we’re at it, we should be focusing our efforts on job creation in every sector of the California economy—from agriculture to advanced manufacturing to tech. Because creating new jobs makes poorer communities both healthier and wealthier.

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