Today’s Los Angeles Times has a big take-out by Joe Mozingo, with photos by Francine Orr and extensive online graphics, about the ongoing woes of San Bernardino, California. The city’s problems, as we’ve set out in previous installments, have been a heartbreaking vicious-cycle combination of economic misfortune worsened by political dysfunction. Over the past generation, San Bernardino has lost every one of its traditional big sources of blue-collar employment: a steel mill, a railroad yard, the commerce related to a major Interstate (before it was relocated 15 miles west), and then an enormous Air Force base.
We’ve been to other cities that have endured nearly comparable business-loss blows and have found ways to adapt and recover. What made San Bernardino’s problems so much worse was its uniquely paralyzed form of city government, which had a classic “failed-state” effect.
As the city’s people grew poorer, their dwindling resources were increasingly funneled to a small class of politically favored interest groups. In San Bernardino’s case, those were mainly the police and fire-fighter unions—nearly all of whose members lived in other, “nicer” cities and who became among the best-paid public employees in the state even as the city was becoming the most impoverished. The L.A. Times piece points out that as median household income in the city was sinking below $40,000, median pay for firefighters was rising above $150,000.