My colleague Mark Z. Barabak expertly laid out last week the chances of California’s two leading members of Congress, Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), making history after the November election.
That would happen if Pelosi keeps her post as leader of House Democrats and McCarthy becomes leader of House Republicans. It would be the first time the leaders of both party caucuses hail from the same state.
As Barabak observed further, the Californias represented by Pelosi and McCarthy look like two different states. We have a further observation: For some reason, the policies promoted by Pelosi help the average resident of Bakersfield, while the policies promoted by McCarthy undermine his own constituents’ standard of living while lavishly gifting Pelosi’s constituents—in fact, the wealthiest of Pelosi’s constituents.
Before we get into the details, let’s examine the economic and political gulf separating these two communities.
The median income in Bakersfield is a bit more than half that in San Francisco, $59,000 to $104,000; the average hourly wage in Bakersfield is about two-thirds of the Bay Area’s level, average monthly rent is less than one-third that of the Bay Area. Bakersfield is a blue-collar working-class town; San Francisco is quintessentially white-collar, professional, tech-oriented.
Bakersfield voter registrations are about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans; San Francisco overwhelmingly Democratic. Bakersfield voted for Trump by a 13-point margin; San Francisco for Clinton by a 74-point margin.
This begins to look like the situation addressed by Thomas Frank in his best-selling 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” The book asked why residents in the heartland kept voting for politicians espousing policies that were inimical to their own welfare—chiefly conservative Republicans hostile to economic policies and government programs that the voters needed. His answer lay in the culture wars fostered by the GOP, which preached anti-abortion, anti-“elite,” pro-Christianity, pro-“family values,” while enacting policies that made the rich richer and set members of the working class to fighting each other.
It’s hard to say whether the same phenomenon is at work in Bakersfield, where Democrats and Republicans have a 36%-35% registration lineup. (This is California, after all.) But it’s proper to examine the policies the two parties espouse, and how they affect residents of the two cities.
Let’s start with health policy. McCarthy worked assiduously over the last couple of years to repeal the Affordable Care Act, including its Medicaid expansion provision. His party has been pushing to block-grant Medicaid to the states, a change that would merely mask a reduction in benefits and hamstring states’ ability to respond to healthcare crises as they occur. The Democrats under Pelosi opposed all these plans.
Yet McCarthy’s district is one of the nation’s most dependent on Medicaid. In Tulare County, 55% of the population is on Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program. In Kern County, it’s 45%. By contrast, San Francisco’s Medicaid rate is 26.6%, lower than the statewide average of 34.5%. (The figures are 2016 estimates.)
The ranks of the medically uninsured—the population the ACA is designed to help—are much greater in McCarthy’s district than Pelosi’s. Of Bakersfield’s 11 ZIP codes, the uninsured rate in six was higher than 19%, and in one it was 28.3%. San Francisco’s uninsured rate in 2016 was 7.2%, a hair above the statewide average of 6.8%.
The tax cut enacted by McCarthy’s caucus in December was skewed materially toward the affluent, who are overrepresented in Pelosi’s district and the San Francisco metropolitan area—the Bay Area counties of Marin, San Mateo and Santa Clara are California’s richest.
To understand how the tax cuts affect residents of these two districts, let’s break down the income statistics and the distribution of the tax measure’s bounty. According to 2016 census figures, about 45% of the 242,551 households in McCarthy’s district have incomes of less than $50,000, and 10.5% collect more than $150,000 a year.
In Pelosi’s district, these statistics are turned on their head. Of its 321,880 households, about 28% earn less than $50,000 and 36% earn more than $150,000.
That’s important because of how the tax cut is distributed. According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, households earning less than $50,000 will receive about 6.2% of all the tax benefits in the tax measure. Households earning more than $150,000 will receive 65.3% of the benefits. In future years, according to the TPC, the benefits flow even more sharply toward the wealthy.
Tulare and Kern counties both have poverty levels of more than 22%; the poverty rate in McCarthy’s district overall is 20.9%, nearly twice the 11.3% level in San Francisco. Marin, San Mateo and Santa Clara, the neighboring counties to Pelosi’s district, all have rates in the single digits.
That puts the spotlight on the two politicians’ approaches to federal anti-poverty programs. McCarthy’s House GOP cohort is pushing a drastic restructuring of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, via a farm bill produced by the House Agriculture Committee.
The measure would threaten benefits for as many as 7 million low-income and working-class individuals, according to a report issued Tuesday by the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. By imposing stringent new work requirements on recipients and validation requirements on states, the bill also would increase state administrative costs by at least $2.5 billion a year nationwide, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue acknowledged when it was first taking shape in February.
The burden on SNAP recipients would fall unevenly across the state. Among McCarthy’s constituents, 14.4%, or about 44,000, receive food stamps, according to 2015 figures. That was well above the state average of 9.6% and the national average of 12.7%.; only 11 of California’s 53 congressional districts had a higher rate, including districts represented by Republicans Paul Cook of Yucca Valley, David Valadao of Hanford and Devin Nunes of Tulare.
In Pelosi’s district only 4.7% of residents, or 24,000, received food stamps. That was the ninth lowest rate among California districts. Yet McCarthy’s fellow Republicans are trying to cut food stamp rolls and Pelosi’s caucus is trying to hold the line. (The proposed changes are thought to be unlikely to pass the Senate.)
That’s just a hint of how Republican orthodoxy disadvantages the working class and middle class, who are mainstays of McCarthy’s district, and helps upper-income families who are overrepresented in Pelosi’s district. The policies espoused by Pelosi and her caucus—expanding health coverage, distributing tax benefits broadly, providing nutritional assistance to working families—tend to flow more toward the typical families that have voted for McCarthy. So, yes, it’s true that they come from two different Californias, but they seem to be looking out for each other’s voters.