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Californias 13th largest citys luck is about to run out
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Luck is running out for Stockton.

California’s 13th largest city is now 20 days away from possible bankruptcy should talks with creditors to restructure municipal debt fail.

How did a municipality that was once viewed at the dawn of the 20th century as one of the strongest and most promising cities on the West Coast end up 110 years later ready to enter the record books for the largest city ever in the United States to file for bankruptcy?

The fact the region relies first and foremost on agriculture to power the economy has a bit to do with it. In fairness, though, there are many cities in this country situated in major farm regions that have diversified their economies. Stockton has done that somewhat.

There is little doubt expensive public employee pensions and benefits are playing a role.

But there are outside forces that have made Stockton struggle.

When South Vietnam fell to communism in 1975, the first wave of refugees reached the United States. The largest chunk ended up in California and ultimately Stockton – which was already struggling with poverty and welfare dependency issues at the time – and got a large number of the refugees resettled by the federal government. They taxed existing safety net services and made a tight job market even tighter. The biggest wave of Southeast Asian immigrants came in 1980 when people began fleeing Laos and Cambodia.

Thirty years later, the families of the immigrants have assimilated for the most part. But there is no denying that Stockton struggled for years.

Then came another major wave of immigration. They were also escaping tyranny but not of the political kind. Financial tyranny through the high cost of living the Bay Area was forcing thousands to look to the east for affordable places to raise their families.

The communities that had the jobs in the Bay Area such as Pleasanton did not have affordable housing for much of their workforce although they had the lucrative tax base of massive non-residential development.

Stockton – along with other Northern San Joaquin Valley communities – became the de facto affordable housing solution for the Bay Area.

To demonstrate how dependent Stockton and other valley communities had become on the Bay Area economy, in 2003 the Bulletin profiled several women who were riding the Altamont Commute Express service to San Jose to work $10 an hour jobs at a McDonald’s. They couldn’t find work in Stockton and San Jose fast food places couldn’t find labor at that time willing to work for $10 an hour.

Meanwhile cities were facing a serious problem of Bay Area cities luring away experienced police and firefighters with better pay, better benefits, and better pensions. So Stockton and other cities started to match the Bay Area.

And as long as growth occurred each year from those who were essentially affordable housing immigrants, everything worked.

And when it stopped working, we got into the mess we are today.

The lesson is clear. Northern San Joaquin Valley cities have got to find ways to take advantage of the overflow of the Bay Area economy without getting caught up in a perceived need to keep up with what the cities on the west side of the Altamont Pass can offer.

The federal government located refugees not in the Bay Area but here and in the long run placed a drag on the economy. Then as they were being assimilated, the Northern San Joaquin Valley absorbed another wave of immigrants that created the demand for Bay Area types of services but without the Bay Area non-residential tax base to support it.


This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209-249-3519.