Rethinking how we value workers, refreshing our laws, broadening the voices in public policy—these are a few of the economic lessons that Betty T. Yee, California State Controller, has gleaned from the pandemic. PPIC vice president and senior fellow Lande Ajose spoke recently with Yee about the last two years and how the state can chart a path forward.
Yee opened with a powerful reflection on the stress and strain experienced by workers over the course of the pandemic, saying that the state’s most important economic challenge is “the fragility of our human capital.”
“No one has been spared,” she said. “I’m not a behavioral-health expert but I do see those challenges still lingering . . . and for the economy that is something we’re going to have to pay attention to.”
Although the vast majority of jobs have returned, many Californians are still struggling, especially as inflation cuts into recent wage gains. Did pandemic programs—including stimulus payments, tax credits for children, and relief for small businesses and renters—do enough for those who needed help? “I shudder to think what would have happened if these dollars were not available,” said Yee.
Yee argued that government should be “more nimble” moving forward. To better address housing affordability and homelessness, she suggested streamlining housing programs for greater efficiency. She also said that CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) has been used “as a weapon on all sides” when it comes to housing development. She commented that “it’s great to refresh laws to be more relevant,” noting that climate change should be a key factor in today’s housing construction.
Underscoring a need for a “worker-centered orientation” in policymaking, Yee called for changes in how we support workers. She indicated there could be a role for guaranteed basic income to help people transition to better work opportunities. She also called for elevating the care sector—low-wage work often carried out by women, people of color, and immigrants—to recognize how “foundational” it is to our economy as a whole.
Yee believes strongly in expanding the voices of those involved in policy discussions. As the daughter of immigrants who served as a translator and advocate for her parents, she thinks about how many communities don’t have an advocate. “How wonderful it would be to make sure that the voices of those who are facing the most dire impacts of [the state’s] challenges could be at the table to talk about their lived experiences” and collaborate on solutions, she said.
PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
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