The Third California: The Golden State's New Frontier

Extending from the outer suburbs of greater Los Angeles to the foothills of the high mountains of Northern California, the "Third California" contains virtually all the state's fast-growing regions—from Riverside-San Bernardino in the south to the burgeoning suburbs around Sacramento.

October 2015 | by David Delaney

To a large extent, what defines the Third California is how it contrasts with the increasingly congested, expensive, and physically hemmed in coastal region. Virtually all the fast-growing regions of the state, from Riverside-San Bernardino to the south to the burgeoning suburbs around Sacramento are located in this area. To capitalize on this growth, and to secure its place as a font of opportunity in the state, the Third California must appeal to skilled workers and industries, address the needs of undereducated, primarily Hispanic workers, and build on the optimism that has led many newcomers to the region.

Along with the aesthetic criticisms a widespread notion exists that the skill levels and economies of this vast area are marked by permanent underdevelopment and undesirable jobs. Insofar as there are significant gains in educated migration to the Central Valley, argues one report, it is because people still commute to jobs in the coastal region, where the vast majority of good jobs are located. 

Such assessments all contain elements of truth, but often ignore the more dynamic aspects of the region’s demographic and economic growth and its potential for positive change. Along with its growing urbanized character, much of the Third California is building more diverse job growth, while developing both urban amenities and developing a greater appreciation of the need to preserve its natural environment.

Most importantly, the Third California remains perhaps the greatest untapped outlet for upward mobility in the Golden State. In some senses, this reflects as well the difficulty of wealthier areas—such as First California’s San Francisco Bay Area and, to a lesser extent, coastal Second California in the south—to provide new jobs and opportunities, especially opportunities for homeownership.

Some of these areas, notably the San Francisco Bay, may well be content to continue as relatively high-wage, high-income regions without any further population or even job growth, preferring essentially to remain in a kind of socio-economic steady state. This has been defined by one prominent economist as “Growth without Growth”.  Although this may work in metropolitan areas such as Boston or Providence that have a stagnant, rapidly aging population, it is difficult to imagine amid the demographic force of a state like California, whose population is expected to grow substantially over the coming decades.

Even policy experts in California often fail to see this critical distinction between an aspirational economy and an aging, albeit affluent one. Relatively low incomes are certainly a problem, particularly in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, but more consideration needs to be paid to the impact of the Third California’s much higher rate of family formation, as well as lower cost of living.

Just as earlier generations left the Midwest, South, or Northeast for the opportunities of coastal California, today the interior regions represent the geography of aspiration for today’s ambitious migrants, including increasing numbers from the Bay Area and coastal southern California. History shows that today’s bedroom suburb or backwater can also become the dynamic growth region of tomorrow. It is important to remember that thirty years ago Orange County—now among the most dynamic metropolitan regions in the country—was largely a bedroom community for Los Angeles.

In this sense, the Third California represents not so much a break with the California “dream” but its new homeland, the state of opportunity for a new generation. The goal of policy, in our mind, should be how to fulfill these middle class aspirations, while finding ways to grow without destroying the rich agricultural and natural resources of the region. In the final analysis, how the Third California fares may determine whether the state remains competitive—and a beacon of opportunity in the early decades of the 21st century.


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan