During much of the United States’ largest surge in COVID-19 infections in winter 2020–2021, the epicenter of the virus’s spread and deaths was the state of California. Within California, no counties were as consistently near the top of lists of daily new cases per capita as San Bernardino and Riverside. Often the two inland counties ranked numbers one and two. When a photojournalism team from The Washington Post went to Southern California to report on the dire stress on medical resources there, its coverage centered on a hospital in San Bernardino County. An article simply titled “Overwhelmed” offers a vivid window into the daily struggles of exhausted healthcare professionals and dying patients in a hospital packed near double capacity—scenes that played out across the Inland Empire.64
This may seem an odd way to begin the part of this report on attitudes and beliefs about economic opportunity and inequality. But health vulnerabilities like those that COVID-19 exploited are deeply connected to the economic engines of the Inland Empire; decisions about what economic “opportunity” means for, and what it can cost, the region; and the uneven power dynamics underlying these decisions. Those connections are a critical backdrop against which to understand the main empirical focus of this part of the report—how Inland Empire residents understand the forces shaping economic outcomes in the region, and the prospects for changing them.
Specifically, we examine the extent to which low- and middle-income residents hold connections between corporate influence and local inequalities fresh in mind in the ways they talk about, and make sense of, the region’s problems and potential solutions. Awareness of unequal opportunities and well-being is prominent in talk about economic conditions in the Inland Empire. Residents are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the region’s job market, and with the need to commute out of county for what they see as good work. Many recognize the role of local politicians in shaping the job landscape, and a solid majority believes that corporations have too much influence in politics.
Still, talk of these issues reveals that residents wrestle with contending narratives to explain their circumstances, hold their views together, and motivate action or inaction. When discussing economic inequality, they oscillate between talk of privilege and unequal access on one hand, and faith in the basic functioning of meritocracy on the other. Residents acknowledge that structures and systems underlie corporate power, but often end up narrowing their criticisms to individual corrupt politicians. Perhaps most importantly, they narrate their views on the relationships among economic opportunity, corporations and the wealthy, and government in ways that almost never position themselves and their peers in a place of agency. All of this points to a pressing need for civic leaders in the Inland Empire to articulate and align around a clear and coherent narrative arc connecting all the dots between inequalities of wealth, access, and power. Doing so would be a major step toward advancing civic action for equity and belonging in health, well-being, and prosperity.
The Economy-Environment-Health Tangle
A number of factors made the Inland Empire particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19; but one is responsible for a much broader range of health risks and negative outcomes. Stated simply, the region has the worst air quality of any place in the country. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), no county in the United States suffers as much ozone pollution (“smog”) as San Bernardino,65 nor as many days per year when ozone pollution is characterized as very unhealthy (the “purple” level on the Air Quality Index). On both metrics, neighboring Riverside County ranks second.66 Neither county ranks quite as high on particle pollution, but for it too, the ALA grades both of them an “F.”
The Inland Empire’s exceptionally unhealthy air is largely attributable to the overwhelming presence of the warehousing, logistics, and goods-movement industry in the region. Some natural conditions contribute to the pollution: nearly year-round sunshine that catalyzes smog, and surrounding mountains that trap it. But it is the emissions poured unrelentingly into the air by cars, trucks, and trains that make this possible. The diesel big rigs and delivery trucks moving goods to and from the region’s massive warehouses bear an outsize and conspicuous role.
A Frito-Lays distribution center and its container yard abuts a neighborhood in Rancho Cucamonga. Google Earth imagery.
The populous southwestern corner of the Inland Empire is home to a huge concentration of warehouses and goods-distribution centers. These have grown in number and size over the past decade, and now cover more than a billion square feet of indoor space in the region. Amazon has more than a dozen facilities in the Inland Empire, including some of its largest fulfillment centers in the U.S. The online retailer is joined by UPS, Walmart, Home Depot, and other “big-box” stores. This regional logistics industry—moving, unloading, and reloading goods from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to all points beyond—is characterized by large corporations paying local workers low wages, often under unfavorable conditions of employment.67 Further, some in the industry have actively sought to cultivate an immigrant and racialized workforce that is highly vulnerable to exploitation.68
There are a number of ways in which the warehousing industry has fallen short of protecting workers and their communities from exposure to COVID-19 since the pandemic’s onset. Amazon in particular has shown itself to be a bad public-health actor in the region, as a report from Human Impact Partners and the Warehouse Worker Resource Center documents.69 But as that report points out in its title, much of the logistics industry’s damage to the region’s health is imposed inside the warehouses—hidden from public view.
That is not the case for air pollution. The region’s unhealthy air envelops the Inland Empire’s population core, and is an unavoidable aspect of residents’ everyday sensory experiences. As the logistics industry continues to expand, warehouses encroach ever further into residential areas, with the noises and smells of diesel trucks creeping right into long-time residents’ homes.70 The type and level of air pollution elevate risks of cancer, asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema, and “make the lungs more susceptible to infection.”71 Public-health researchers have long since shown the connection between the goods-movement hubs’ presence in the region and increased cases of asthma and bronchitis episodes in children.72 Ozone pollution also taxes the immune system more generally, especially the system’s development in childhood.73
These risks are not unknown locally, and the expansion of the logistics industry in the Inland Empire has never gone on without opposition. Local community leaders and environmental advocates spoke out against the original push to shift logistics operations inland from the ports, publicizing the toll it stood to take on the region’s health, and especially that of low-income communities of color.74 Activists and residents have continued to push back against successive waves of new project proposals and rezoning measures sought by developers. New development initiatives have also made news in the region due to corruption scandals involving public officials. In 2013, federal investigators raided the homes and offices of Moreno Valley city councilmembers in an investigation into whether they had received bribes from warehouse developers.75 The scandal was widely covered in local media, and led to the successful removal by recall of the mayor and a city councilmember.76
In sum, the expansion, and tangible health threat, of warehouse development in the Inland Empire have unfolded largely in public view. They are conspicuous manifestations of the reality of far-reaching, and largely unconstrained and unaccountable, corporate power—right there in inland neighborhoods. Given this, one might expect the region’s residents to be particularly attuned to issues of economic inequality, environmental and labor abuse, and corporate power. Our research found that residents are indeed sensitive to these issues, but without consistently connecting them all to one another. The sections that follow discuss the evidence we found on how Inland Empire residents—especially low- and middle-income people of color—are thinking about economic opportunity and inequality in the region, and the narratives they use to organize and make sense of their experiences and ability to make change.
What Is Opportunity in the Inland Empire?
As local officials and policymakers foster the Inland Empire’s warehousing boom, they also promote it to constituents as the opportunity that’s right for the region. Warehouse work was first hailed as a replacement for manufacturing jobs lost to deindustrialization, and later as a solution for workers left unemployed in the wake of the housing-market bubble and Great Recession. Not only does the development of warehouses and distribution hubs take advantage of the Inland Empire’s geographic proximity to the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex; it also offers low-skill jobs in a region with relatively lower levels of educational attainment, higher poverty levels, and unstable unemployment rates.77 Local leaders, planners, and developers see the industry’s environmental costs as a necessary “trade off,” telling the region’s residents that these low-wage, often part-time or temporary jobs are the right jobs—even good jobs—for them.78
Containers fill the yards at the Ports of Los Angeles (left) and Long Beach (right), the country’s busiest ports. Logistics companies take advantage of comparatively cheap land and low wages in the Inland Empire — and the proximity to shipping infrastructure pictured here — in order to maximize their profits. Photograph by Andrew Louis.
Participants in our qualitative research made clear that they disagree. In general, when the topic of economic opportunity in the Inland Empire was raised in focus groups and interviews, residents said either that it was extremely limited, or that it was only to be found outside the region. Younger and older participants alike said that local job markets are dominated by fast-food and service work, and jobs related to warehousing and goods movement.79 None of these was regarded as offering a living wage in the short term, or upward mobility in the long term. Study participants spoke of it as the norm that low-income residents who work in the region must hold multiple jobs, share housing with extended family or friends, or both. As a 53-year-old Black interviewee from Moreno Valley said:
Moreno Valley has all these warehouses where you can work at Amazon. You’re putting in 10-hour days at… [pause] it just now may be $15 an hour. But still, that’s not enough… for the childcare that’s $700… the rent that’s $2,200 a month. How many people do you have to have that’s living in this one house that works at Amazon 10 hours a day to cover that?
The alternative for inland residents, participants said, is to commute to a coastal county for work. Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties are seen as places of real opportunity, and residents point to the volume of daily commuters as evidence of that. Indeed, data bear out that Inland Empire residents who work in coastal counties are more likely to possess college degrees, have higher average annual earnings, and are less likely to live below the poverty line than those who both live and work in the Inland Empire.80
Beyond seeing the job market in the region as inadequate, many residents experience their work situations as actually hampering their prospects for reaching career and life goals. The necessity of working multiple low-wage jobs, or being available for “flex[ible]” work hours in warehousing and goods movement, impinges on time and energy for educational or skills development. In interviews with young Amazon warehouse workers, UC Riverside researchers found that “many college students described their warehouse employment as interfering with their ability to perform well in school.”81 The researchers conclude that, though these students may approach warehouse work as a short-term income source—not a career path—the work schedules, sleep deprivation, and physical- and mental-health impacts pose serious risks to academic success, and ultimately, chances for upward mobility. Our own study participants also spoke of the fraught cost-benefit calculus of whether to pursue training or higher education, given its expenses—including time away from work—while knowing that the local job market may not be able to reward new credentials even if they were able to earn them.
Finally, it is notable that study participants who spoke of the regional economy’s lack of opportunity, and its dominance by the logistics industry, readily connected these to local decision makers. Across our focus groups, residents called attention to the fact that warehouse development has been courted and incentivized by government—that this is an active choice. Local officials could just as easily have taken steps to encourage diversification of industries and opportunities in the region, said participants.
The fact that they have not done so is a source of resentment. One participant in our focus group with African-American women spoke with frustration of how the job market has failed to match local training programs. “We have nothing but warehouses, but we have eleventy fifty thousand CNA [certified nursing assistant] schools, eleventy fifty thousand universities with med programs… a culinary school,” she said. “And that is where the politicking… comes [in]. They allow for us to have all these different warehouses, [but] not enough viable jobs.” Later, another participant echoed and affirmed who this “they” is: “Like this young lady said [earlier], when you got a lot of warehouses [with] a lot of CNA [program]s, that doesn’t go together. And how does the government play a role in that? Because the city council has to approve the plans.”
Such plans, and their expansion of warehousing and goods movement in the Inland Empire, look unlikely to abate.82 Since the COVID-19 pandemic, warehousing and logistics is one of the only sectors that has added jobs in the region, fueled by the increasing prevalence of online shopping.83 As 2021 began, new rezoning proposals sought to continue to push industrial activity and pollution further into residential areas, impacting low- and middle-income communities of color the most.84 But just as these proposals face local resistance, our research affirms that members of these communities in the Inland Empire are well aware of how local government shapes the labor market in the region. Their accounts diverge from the popular narrative that treats “natural” market dynamics as determining job opportunities. They instead make visible the hand of local government, which they see as intervening on behalf of an industry that provides jobs, but not opportunity.
A logistics landscape in northeast Pomona Valley, Inland Empire
A vast web of warehouses and distributions centers straddles the area between Rancho Cucamonga (northwest), Ontario (west), and Fontana (east). As in other parts of the Inland Empire, these facilities intermingle with storefronts, schools, and residential communities.
Just some of the many logistics centers in this area are highlighted in the map above. Heavy truck traffic is a constant on the three major highways pictured here: Interstate 15, running north-south through the region; Interstate 10, running west-east from California’s coast to Florida’s; and California Route 60.
Gaps in the Story?: Corporate Power and Workers
While study participants’ personal narratives reveal resentment toward local politicians for prioritizing warehouse development, our surveys do not show that the inland population as a whole judges corporations especially harshly. Nor is it clear that Inland Empire residents are more conscious than other Californians of the conditions and struggles of warehouse-industry workers themselves. This despite that it is many of the largest corporate retailers that have so dramatically altered the region’s air and communities, and these warehouse workers are among their neighbors.
Four months into a pandemic that underscored how “essential” people who work in warehouses or transport goods have always been, Blueprint for Belonging’s regional surveys of the Inland Empire and Orange County asked residents how they felt about these workers. A large majority in the Inland Empire, 71 percent, said that they feel more grateful to these workers since the pandemic, with 52 percent saying “much more grateful.”85 Still, these shares were smaller than those in Orange County, where 78 percent expressed more gratitude toward warehouse, transport, and delivery workers, with 59 percent “much more grateful.” Respondents were also asked for their opinions on how responsible several different factors were for the harm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of the survey, news of outbreaks in warehouses had been covered widely in the press, and workers had begun speaking out to demand better protections. Still, only 31 percent of Inland Empire residents placed significant responsibility for the coronavirus’s harm with “employers that did not do enough to protect their employees,” compared to 41 percent who laid blame with “people who have unhealthy lifestyles or don’t take care of their health.”
More Inland Empire residents are dissatisfied with corporations’ political clout. Survey respondents were asked to say whether several groups or entities have “too much,” “too little,” or “the right amount” of influence in California politics. For half of the respondents, the list included “big corporations,” while the other half were asked specifically about “Amazon, the company.” There was broad agreement across Inland Empire residents that big corporations have too much influence, with 68 percent saying so.86 But results were far more mixed when it came to Amazon. Just 46 percent of Inland Empire residents said that the online retailer and regional warehousing and distribution giant has too much influence in politics, with nearly one third of respondents saying they “don’t know.” Across all race/ethnicity and age groups, around twice as many respondents answered “the right amount” or “don’t know” for Amazon as did so with respect to “big corporations.”
Views on corporate influence in politics
Inland Empire and Orange County residents were asked whether big corporations and Amazon exercise “too much,” “too little,” or “just about the right amount” of influence in California politics.
Together these results imply that, though the generalized criticism of corporate influence may be almost as widespread in the Inland Empire as elsewhere in California, there are limits on how residents apply that criticism and relate it to local dynamics. This is consistent with what the Blueprint for Belonging team has heard from community-based and advocacy organizations in the region. These organizations attest that campaigns to support warehouse workers and make demands upon Amazon and other major corporations in the region are commonly met with reticence from community members. In the minds of many, what happens inside the warehouses is the workers’ issues—not the community’s.
Finally, prominent narratives about work and the regional character and identity offer scripts that lead even many workers to disengage from struggles over labor conditions. Inland Empire residents know the region as a hardscrabble place, and aspects of its history and labor market engender a sense of regional exceptionalism.87 Its dramatic population growth is grounded in what a local author described as, “tens of thousands of blue-collar and just barely white-collar families with a lot to lose” who shared experiences and stories of “anxiety, long commutes and flight from gang-dominated neighborhoods.”88 Today the Inland Empire is a place “where people new to the region… are told, ‘No matter what you experienced before you got here, hard work and grinding is the only way to make it’.”89 These types of narratives can normalize what would otherwise be unacceptable, especially as they intersect with personal aspirations and stories of the self that say that one’s present situation is short term—a temporary sacrifice, or means to a greater end. This can create either a kind of pride and identification with “the grind,” or a stoic detachment. Either of these lowers workers’ likelihood to press demands, giving employers a pass on conditions that for many are neither temporary nor a ladder to something more lucrative or just.
Views on Government Action against Inequality
Residents from Inland Empire communities of color who we engaged through qualitative research were broadly aware of economic inequality in the region. Many organized their ideas around the notion of privilege, and how inherited wealth, exclusive social and professional networks, and status mediate access to opportunity. Those who enjoy these forms of privilege were described as not understanding, and being disconnected from, “people like me.” At the same time, many of the same residents were ambivalent about redistributive policies, and in some cases, they criticized low-income people for unscrupulous behavior more than they criticized the well-off. This section lays out patterns in how study participants expressed these nuanced perspectives, and highlights ways in which their thinking supports and opposes government action against economic inequality.
It is notable that, when prompted to speak about whether inequality was an issue in the region, participants usually said that it was, but then shifted to other terminology to discuss it. Talk of “privilege” was relatively common, as were references to the middle class, “regular workers,” and the poor. Residents’ non-use of “inequality” is itself significant, given how prominent the term is in analyses and campaigns to transform economic realities in the United States.90 But beyond that, participants’ terminological shift from “inequality” to “privilege” tended to lead them to greater criticism of unequal access—or “uneven playing fields”—than unequal outcomes in and of themselves.
Similarly, our region-wide survey finds that a notable share of Inland Empire residents think differently about different types of policies against inequality. The survey asked respondents a number of questions about the appropriate role of government in the economy. Two of these that are particularly important to examine together are questions about whether respondents believe that government should be responsible for (1) ensuring that everyone has a basic income, and (2) reducing income differentials between high and low earners. We investigated views on these two propositions because both involve relatively strong steps by government to stem economic inequality, but each with different points of intervention that we expected most respondents would find clear and distinct.
In general, far more Inland Empire residents support government action to ensure that everyone has a guaranteed income than say government should actively reduce income disparity. This is not to say that policy to combat income disparity is unpopular. Overall, 49 percent of Inland Empire respondents said they agree (either “strongly” or “somewhat”) with the proposition that, “It is the responsibility of government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes.” For people of color only, nearly 60 percent agree; and for young people ages 18-29 years, 69 percent agree.
But support is much higher when the proposal is expressed as government helping people meet basic needs—even in the form of a guaranteed income program. On the idea that, “When the economy stops providing for working people, government should be responsible for ensuring that everyone has a basic income,” agreement among survey respondents increased by about 20 percentage points across the board in comparison to the idea that government should reduce differences in incomes (see Figure 11). Notably, almost all of the variation comes in the number that “strongly agree.” When looking just at it, we see a sizable existing support base in the Inland Empire for a guaranteed basic income policy. This base is composed disproportionately of young people ages 18-29 years, 58 percent of whom “strongly agree” that government is responsible for ensuring a basic income, as well as Black residents, 62 percent of whom “strongly agree” (as shown in Figure 11). Notably, women anchor support for a guaranteed basic income in both Black and Latinx communities. Among Black women, 70 percent say they strongly agree that ensuring a basic income is government’s responsibility, joined by 57 percent of Latina women.
Views on government’s role in the economy, by race/ethnicity
Inland Empire residents were asked if they agree or disagree that government is responsible for (1) reducing income inequality and (2) ensuring everyone has basic income when the economy stops providing one.
So what explains the weaker support for an active government role in lessening income inequality? Given that both survey items broach policy proposals that imply increasing incomes for lower earners, we can hypothesize that the misgivings are about government limiting incomes at the higher end. Our qualitative research bears this out. It also sheds light on why low- and middle-income people specifically are skeptical about the idea of reining in—as through taxation—others’ high incomes.
Our first lesson comes from the finding that, when prompted to speak to issues of economic inequality, focus-group and interview participants most often focused on small-scale inequalities from their everyday lives. They spoke of differences between those who earn the minimum wage versus those who can afford their own apartment, or uneven investment in one part of their city versus another.
Despite the presence in their communities of warehouses and distribution centers for some of the largest retailers in the country, their narratives about inequality often foregrounded people who they knew personally as the potential recipients of tax hikes. Where they expressed opposition to the idea of reforming tax laws to make the wealthy pay more, study participants often spoke about their doctor, local small-business owners, or a relative who had “made it” in the position of “the wealthy.”
To some extent, this primary association of economic inequality with smaller-scale income differences may suggest that the larger differentials that mark our era are too big to contemplate. This is understandable in a country in which the difference between the median household income and the net worth of the richest individual is equal to that between a yard stick and a road trip from Maine to Miami.91 This kind of extreme inequality is almost unimaginable, forcing most of us to reckon the notion of inequality in terms closer to home. When we do this, however, we are likely to focus on advantages that are many orders of magnitude smaller than the true scale of inequality—and the benefits of which are enjoyed by people more akin to peers. This was the case for several of our Latinx and Black study participants in the Inland Empire.
A man walks in the East Valley area of San Bernardino, a mixed commercial and residential area where a cluster of auto repair businesses operate alongside neighborhoods. About 75 percent of residents in this neighborhood are Latinx, and 9 in 10 are people of color.
Lopsided public investment across the Inland Empire region has left many neighborhoods like this one in disrepair and, in turn, many people in working-class communities of color feeling abandoned by elected officials.
For many though, the focus on smaller-scale inequalities also reflected a critical, pessimistic analysis of who is and is not vulnerable to government actions like tax increases. As laid out in detail elsewhere, much of the skepticism we heard in the Inland Empire about raising public funds by making “only corporations and the extremely wealthy pay more” in taxes was rooted in the belief that they would not actually do so.92 Many study participants explained that these elites currently have—and would continue to have—the power to flout tax law altogether, or the resources and know-how to subvert taxation through workarounds and “loopholes.” Within these narratives, the wealthiest are beyond the system’s reach; therefore, in practice, only people more marginally well-off than the speakers would be impacted by more progressive tax reforms.93
Our research finds that this view was widespread among low- and middle-income Black and Latinx residents.94 So too is the view that, even if the government was able to extract more revenue from the rich and corporations, these resources would never find their way to “communities like ours.” In both cases, residents consistently place the ultimate blame with government or “the system”—not corporations or the wealthy—for their entanglement with big business and extreme wealth. Distrust in government thus undergirds much of the ambivalence, or outright resistance, to progressive tax reforms among many who would—in theory—most stand to benefit from increased social expenditure.
Last, we cannot discount the role of prevalent narratives of meritocracy and the “American Dream” in low- and middle-income Inland Empire residents’ opposition to government action against income inequality. Our interviews with Latinx residents in particular suggest that the idea that most people get what they deserve in light of their work ethic and effort is in wide circulation. Where these interviewees associated high incomes and wealth with hard work and sacrifice, higher tax burdens were interpreted as unfair “punishment.”
This criticism of progressive taxation—like the adoption of some anti-immigrant tropes discussed in Part III—rests on the assumption that the United States is a meritocracy. That is, it assumes that opportunity structures are essentially open and fair, and that rewards are distributed on basis of individual effort and performance rather than status or inheritance. This was evident across many study participants’ commentaries that stressed that those who are well-off must have gone through struggle to achieve their success.
But these reflections on the roots of the wealthy—“where they came from”—were also in some cases a turning point. For some study participants, it led them to move from opposing more progressive taxation to delineating who it would be fair to tax at higher rates and who not. Insofar as participants thought of the wealthy as having benefited primarily from inheritance or unearned privilege, they were far readier to increase high earners’ taxes. Additionally, talk of “needing to know where they [the wealthy] came from” tended to lead to distinguishing wealthy individuals from corporations, and excluding the latter from participants’ objections to tax hikes.
This section has sought to capture the considerable nuance in Inland Empire residents’ views on how government should and should not act to address economic inequality, especially the views of low- to middle-income people of color who we engaged in our qualitative research. Overall, these residents tend to see inequality as a problem, but primarily insofar as it affronts values like fairness, hard work, and honesty. Participants often criticized unequal outcomes when they connected the benefits to actors who were perceived as enjoying privilege or having “taken advantage,” but rarely in and of themselves.95
Such connections between unearned privilege or unscrupulous behavior and unequal outcomes seemed to be understood as the exception. Typically it was assumed that hard work and effort were the most common sources of economic advancement, especially by older study participants. This may have been because much of inland residents’ talk about inequality focused on small-scale income advantages enjoyed by people they knew personally. Where the wealthiest and corporations were concerned, study participants portrayed them as beyond the reach of policy intervention. While this engendered some criticism of corporate power, ultimately most resentment was directed at government or “the system”—whether for being corrupt, or an inept dupe of corporations.
Conclusions and Implications
This part of the report began with the topic of health vulnerabilities in the Inland Empire, and their connection to the development of a labor market dominated by the logistics industry. It showed that residents are dissatisfied with the resulting options for work in the region, and keenly aware of the role of local politicians in delivering only jobs that fail to provide a living wage or prospects of upward mobility. It further showed broader dissatisfaction with unequal access to economic opportunities in the inland region.
But so too has Part IV revealed a number of misgivings about, and barriers to support for, policy interventions to mitigate the degree and growth of inequality in the region and state. To expand and strengthen civic advocacy for the kinds of programs that will spread economic opportunity and rein in corporate power would require contending with a number of assumptions and background narratives that undergird skepticism about prospects for change. Our research spotlighted some such narratives, while also uncovering practical lessons for shifting narrative frames. The most notable of those lessons are synthesized below.
- Many workers adopt personal narratives that center on their individual work ethic and willingness to make sacrifices, set against a backdrop of “exceptional circumstances” in the region. Such narratives can dissuade them from speaking out against harmful practices and structures, especially if “keeping their heads down” is in the pursuit of higher goals. However, it is also the case that the idea of standing up for others, or for a broader notion of “community,” resonates widely. As such, the same commitment and determination workers bring to “grinding it out” might also be activated in the name of defending co-workers and neighbors. Those aiming to organize collective action might do best to raise issues of fairness and exploitation less from the standpoint of individual self-interest and more for how they affect the whole community.96 And when expressing unity and solidarity in hard work and day-to-day struggles, it is important not to let talk of the region’s exceptionality serve as excuses for what is in fact corporate abuse or irresponsible exercise of power.
- Across low- and middle-income residents of color, the notion of “economic inequality” tends to bring to mind smaller-scale disparities, often among acquaintances. As a result, the true magnitude of wealth and income differentials in California and the United States often eludes residents’ evaluations of policies to stem inequality. The scale of inequality in the country is undoubtedly difficult to grasp. But to have an inclusive and democratic public dialogue around the issue will require making its character clear and tangible, including by putting its scale at the fore of the discussion. Otherwise, Californians will be left to form their opinions and preferences on how to deal with the inequality “iceberg” based only that iceberg’s tip.
- Low- and middle-income earners are resistant to interventions against economic inequality when they see wealth and high earnings as built principally on hard work and personal sacrifice. This is the case seemingly irrespective of how high are the earnings in question. The prevalence of the assumption that economic rewards correlate with hard work—and that the wealthy, for the most part, have earned it—reflects the hold of the American Dream narrative. In our research with Inland Empire residents of color, it was especially notable among those with recent family or personal immigration histories. But focus group discussions showed that the meritocracy myth can also be pierced, as when participants brought up personal stories of people who have worked hard their whole lives without prospering financially. These examples softened participants’ reluctance to intervene against inequality, as did other stories that foregrounded the role of inherited or otherwise unearned privilege as the source of prosperity. In the United States, examples of economic fortunes being preordained at birth, and of hard work—especially physical labor—going unrewarded, are legion. When these are recalled, Inland Empire residents evaluate the fairness of proposals like increasing taxes on the rich more favorably.
Table 3: Narratives on taxing “the wealthy” versus corporations
|On the wealthy...||On corporations...|
|Latina woman, age 29,
|Just because they’re successful doesn’t mean that they have to carry the burden of paying. But I mean, it sounds good to help everybody else. At the same time, I don’t feel like it would be very fair for them. Corporations maybe; but the individual people, no.||
Because I mean, they’re benefiting, they’re profiting from being able to operate in this community. So I think that they should be able to contribute.
woman, age 35,
La mayoría de esas personas [ricas] son personas que no ven a su familia, personas que todo el tiempo sus niños están cuidado por una babysitter… No nacieron con dinero.
The majority of those [rich] people are people who don’t see their family, people who, all the time their kids are cared for by a babysitter… They were not born with money.
Las corporaciones sí, porque también evaden muchos impuestos, con donaciones y cosas que a veces son ficticias. En las corporaciones, sí es distinta. Porque también hay mucha explotación. En las corporaciones hay mucha explotación a sus trabajadores.
The corporations yes, because they also evade a lot of taxes, with donations and things that are sometimes made up. With corporations, yes, it’s different. Because there’s also a lot of exploitation. Within corporations, there’s a lot of exploitation of their workers.
- Residents commonly distinguish corporations from the wealthy when they discuss what steps would be fair to take to combat economic inequality. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, low- and middle-income Inland Empire residents of color do not tend to regard corporations as people. Whereas the wealthy are carefully evaluated as individuals with potentially sympathetic and relatable origin stories, corporations are not. Residents are also more likely to talk about corporations as perpetrating exploitation against workers, and of coming from outside the community and benefiting from the community. Though certainly not everyone in our study drew these distinctions, where they arose, each led residents to speak more favorably of increasing corporate taxation, or otherwise expecting corporations to “give back.”
- A final barrier to expanding engagement to stem economic inequality is a lack of trust in government as a vehicle for improving the lives of average people. Beliefs that government is either unable or unwilling to change the conditions of low-income communities of color in particular often discourage members of those communities from taking action, even where they strongly favor reform. The idea that any potential increases in public revenue would simply disappear into government coffers—and that “people like us” would “never see it”—is in wide circulation. Such disillusionment does not come from nowhere. It is grounded in historical and contemporary injustice with which engagement efforts must contend honestly. To resonate with people’s lived experience, these efforts will need to acknowledge and affirm the roots of distrust, while putting forward a plausible vision of how community members can come together to demand a government that serves them, and a plan to exercise oversight and hold public officials accountable.
The philosophy of the American Dream… that people believe in [is:] if you work hard, you can make it. But in actuality, it’s not about working hard. Because somebody could work 15 hours a day and come off the lot with $150. I saw that in my family where my dad was working overtime. He was working 15 hours a day. And my uncle would work like 8 hours a day and made over two, three million dollars a year. So it depends on where you start.
— Participant 3, young men of color focus group
The challenges posed by mistrust and disillusionment with government extend far beyond the issue of interventions against inequality. As we show in Part V, they lower Inland Empire residents’ expectations of government in ways that are disempowering, and that discourage civic participation in general. The perception that “government” means politicians, and politicians are both out of touch and out of reach is widespread. This makes it difficult for many residents to situate themselves and those with whom they feel a sense of community or linked fate in a position of agency vis-à-vis large public institutions. But as we also show, it is possible for residents to overcome their misgivings about taking civic action when they anchor their decisions in ideas about their identity, relationships, and responsibilities within wider communities.
- 64 Scott Wilson, Jon Gerberg, and Michael S. Williamson, “Overwhelmed,” The Washington Post, December 18, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/california-hospital-covid-capacity/. The Department of Defense deployed active-duty military medical personnel to Riverside County in January 2021, to support hospitals operating well beyond capacity. Rebecca Plevin, “Federal military medical team supporting overwhelmed hospitals in Riverside County,” Palm Springs Desert Sun, January 8, 2021, https://www.desertsun.com/story/news/2021/01/08/federal-military-medical-team-aids-overwhelmed-riverside-county-hospitals/6597944002.
- 65 American Lung Association, “State of the Air 2019,” American Lung Association, 2019, https://www.stateoftheair.org/assets/sota-2019-full.pdf, p. 24.
- 66 American Lung Association, “Report Card: California,” https://www.stateoftheair.org/city-rankings/states/california.
- 67 The use of subcontracting arrangements and temporary staffing agencies are widespread in the employment of warehouse workers and delivery drivers.
- 68 Edna Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson, Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution, Cornell University Press, 2008; and De Lara, Inland Shift.
- 69 Among other things, the inflexible productivity quotas that Amazon imposes on workers make it nearly impossible to follow public-health recommendations on handwashing, hygiene, and sanitization of shared workspaces. Human Impact Partners, “The Public Health Crisis Hidden in Amazon Warehouses,” Human Impact Partners and Warehouse Worker Resource Center, January 2021, http://www.warehouseworkers.org/public-health-crisis-amazon. See also, Melissa Daniels, “‘Fix it’: Amazon workers demand protections as COVID-19 cases grow in Southern California facilities,” Palm Springs Desert Sun, June 23, 2020, https://www.desertsun.com/story/money/business/2020/06/23/coronavirus-cases-amazon-continue-climb-workers-demand-protections/5245645002; and Erika Hayasaki, “Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening,” The New York Times Magazine, February 18, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/18/magazine/amazon-workers-employees-covid-19.html.
- 70 Paloma Esquivel, “When your house is surrounded by massive warehouses,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-10-27/fontana-california-warehouses-inland-empire-pollution.
- 71 United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Ground-Level Ozone Pollution: Health Effects of Ozone Pollution,” https://www.epa.gov/ground-level-ozone-pollution/health-effects-ozone-pollution.
- 72 Laura Perez et al., “Global Goods Movement and the Local Burden of Childhood Asthma in Southern California,” American Journal of Public Health 99, supp. 3 (2009): S622-S628.
- 73 Zhanghua Chen et al., “Chronic Effects of Air Pollution on Respiratory Health in Southern California Children: Findings from the Southern California Children’s Health Study,” Journal of Thoracic Disease 7, no. 1 (2015): 46-58.
- 74 De Lara, Inland Shift, pp. 55-60. At the same time, according to De Lara, it was not lost on developers that resistance from social movements and community organizations was likely to be less formidable in the Inland Empire than in Los Angeles.
- 75 For details on the background and progression of the investigation, see Thomas C. Patterson, From Acorns to Warehouses: Historical Political Economy of Southern California’s Inland Empire, Left Coast Press, 2015, pp. 219-220.
- 76 The Press-Enterprise, “Moreno Valley: Probe led to his recall, former mayor says,” The Press-Enterprise (Riverside), June 8, 2015, https://www.pe.com/2015/06/08/moreno-valley-probe-led-to-his-recall-former-mayor-says.
- 77 Bonacich & Wilson, Getting the Goods; De Lara, Inland Shift; and Center for Social Innovation, State of Work in the Inland Empire, Center for Social Innovation, UC Riverside, 2018, https://socialinnovation.ucr.edu/state-work-inland-empire.
- 78 See further, Sheheryar Kaoosji and Veronica Alvarado, “Manufactured Scarcity and the Inland Southern California Economy,” Othering & Belonging Institute, UC Berkeley, January 2020, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/manufactured-scarcity-and-inland-southern-california-economy.
- 79 This perception is mostly borne out by research quantifying the top industries in the region, though may underestimate the number of jobs in the healthcare sector. This could be due to our participants not knowing many people who hold “good jobs” in this sector, or otherwise viewing those jobs as out of reach. On jobs in the region by industry, see Center for Social Innovation, State of Work in the Inland Empire, p. 10.
- 80 Center for Social Innovation, State of Work in the Inland Empire, pp. 12-13.
- 81 Ellen Reese and Alexander Scott, “Warehouse Employment as a Driver of Inequality in the Inland Empire: The Experiences of Young Amazon Warehouse Workers,” Othering & Belonging Institute, UC Berkeley, December 2019, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/warehouse-employment-driver-inequality-inland-empire-experiences-young-amazon-warehouse-workers.
- 82 Commenting on the fact that the Inland Empire topped the list of new warehouse deals in 2019, an industry expert said in January 2020, “Every industrial developer is here… It all started here, will continue to be here, and it will remain to be ahead of any other U.S. region for the foreseeable future.” CBRE, “California’s Inland Empire Tops List of Largest Warehouse Deals in 2019,” CBRE Group Inc., January 27, 2020, https://www.cbre.us/people-and-offices/corporate-offices/los-angeles/greater-los-angeles-media-center/inland-empire-warehouse-2019.
- 83 Notably, even within the subset of goods moving through the warehouses that generate sales tax, only a fraction of the revenue ever finds its way to local cities. Hayasaki, “Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening.”
- 84 Megan Jamerson, “Community Members Distribute Petition to Stop Approval of a New Bloomington Warehouse District,” KVCR News, February 3, 2021, https://www.kvcrnews.org/post/community-members-distribute-petition-stop-approval-new-bloomington-warehouse-district. Studies show that the siting of new warehouse development is strongly related to the percentage of households of color in an area, with a weaker relationship to household income. Quan Yuan, “Location of Warehouses and Environmental Justice,” Journal of Planning Education and Research, open EPUB (2018).
- 85 When we placed the same question on a statewide survey of 10,000 California voters in January 2021, again, those in the Inland Empire were slightly less grateful than their neighbors in Orange and Los Angeles counties, and no more grateful than the state as a whole. Berkeley IGS Poll, “Tabulations from a Late-January 2021 Survey of California Registered Voters about the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Institute of Governmental Studies, UC Berkeley, 2021, p. 58, https://escholarship.org/uc/igs_poll.
- 86 This rate was consistent when comparing white residents to people of color overall, but the share of Black inland residents who answered “too much influence” was somewhat lower, at 60 percent. Notably, this means that significantly more Black respondents said that whites have too much influence in California politics (71 percent) than said the same of big corporations. For additional results, see https://tinyurl.com/b4bie2020.
- 87 By “exceptionalism,” we mean the perception that the region is defined by unusual or extraordinary qualities that warrant different expectations or standards than would apply elsewhere.
- 88 D.J. Waldie, “The meaning of home,” Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2006, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2006-dec-24-bk-waldie24-story.html.
- 89 Kaoosji and Alvarado, “Manufactured Scarcity and the Inland Southern California Economy.”
- 90 The finding is consistent with other recent public-opinion research. Spencer Piston reviewed responses to open-ended questions about politics in a major national survey, and found many references to the “rich” and “poor,” but almost none to “economic inequality.” He concludes that, even as it is common to ask about economic inequality in survey questions, “[W]hen we ask Americans to talk about politics in their own words, they rarely use inequality terminology.” Spencer Piston, Class Attitudes in America: Sympathy for the Poor, Resentment of the Rich, and Political Implications, Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 26.
- 91 At $193 billion, Jeff Bezos’s net worth is over 2.8 million times the median U.S. household income.
- 92 Joshua Clark, Cristina Mora, and Tianna Paschel, “Will Corporations Pay their Share? Race, Distrust, and California’s Tax-Confidence Gap,” Othering & Belonging Institute, University of California, Berkeley, May 2020, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/will-corporations-pay-their-share.
- 93 By “progressive tax reforms,” we mean those that would increase the rate of taxation applied to those of higher income or wealth.
- 94 It was also easily activated among those who did not express it spontaneously, as explained in, Clark, Mora, and Paschel, “Will Corporations Pay their Share?,” pp. 9-10.
- 95 Furthermore, our interviewees were just as inclined to criticize instances of the poor “taking advantage of” or “working” the system as they were with respect to corporations and the rich.
- 96 De Lara has also suggested something similar based on his research with warehouse workers. See his, Inland Shift, p. 78.