California’s diverse population fosters a culture of innovation but also presents unique challenges reflected in the homelessness crisis and education system, said California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis at a virtual event on Tuesday, Dec. 14.
The virtual event, hosted by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), featured a conversation between Kounalakis and SIEPR Director and economics professor Mark Duggan about issues California will face in the future.
Kounalakis, the first woman to serve as California’s lieutenant governor, was elected in January 2019 and currently serves as California’s representative for international affairs and trade. Before her tenure as lieutenant governor, Kounalakis served as former President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the Republic of Hungary.
As a native Californian, Kounalakis attributes much of California’s economic success to its large immigrant population. Kounalakis’ father, Angelo Tsakopoulos, was an immigrant from Greece with “very humble beginnings.” According to Kounalakis, it was her grandmother who encouraged Tsakopoulos to immigrate to California.
“My grandmother never went to school for a single day,” Kounalakis said. “She believed in this country and my grandfather.”
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, 27% of California’s population is foreign-born, surpassing all other states. Half of Californian children have at least one foreign-born parent, making the state the most culturally diverse in the nation.
“We have disproportionately benefited from the United States’ generous immigration policies,” Kounalakis said.
Home to the high-tech hub Silicon Valley, California is also one of the nation’s leading centers of technological innovation. Of the top 100 fastest growing companies in 2021, over a quarter were based in California. In 2018, California was ranked the world’s fifth-largest economy by Forbes.
Its “rich social fabric” attracts talent from across the world and cultivates an environment for innovators to thrive, according to Kounalakis.
Duggan added that, in addition to being a driver of technological advancements, California is a “locomotive of economic strength” for the country and world.
While the state’s diverse immigrant population is a driver of success, it also presents unique challenges that Kounalakis said need to be addressed. California’s poverty and language barriers are reflected in the state’s high school and college graduation rate. In 2020, about 80% of Los Angeles Unified students were from households beneath the poverty line. As a result, only 84% of high school students and 34% of California State University students who entered school in 2016 graduated in 2020.
In response to the increasingly dire education statistics, the state government has worked on education reform initiatives including transitional kindergarten, school-wide free lunch and digital tools to plan college graduation, the lieutenant governor added.
“When I think about the long-term infrastructure for California’s economic endurance, [education] is front and center,” Kounalakis said.
The homelessness crisis in California has also quickly become a priority for state policymakers. Homelessness affects over 160,000 people in California — about 28% of the U.S.’s homeless population and 51% of the unsheltered population. Kounalakis said that a lack of affordable housing is the number one contributing factor to homelessness. In 2018, Forbes reported that the median price for a single-family home in California was $549,000 — twice as much as the same home in Texas.
Although the homelessness crisis is “front and center” to California’s local and state governments, Kounalakis said that institutional hurdles have impeded the state’s progress.
“There are laws around the degree to which we can force anyone against their will into public housing,” Kounalakis said. “Another part of the challenge is having enough places for people to go.”
To address these challenges, the state recently launched an initiative to combat homelessness amidst the pandemic. The initiative, Project Homekey, provides temporary shelter and services to over 48,000 people in emptied hotel rooms funded by the state. Kounalakis said that she is hopeful Project Homekey will give people renewed faith in the government’s ability to have a meaningful impact on its citizens’ lives.
“I hope everyone watching who loves our state and believes in California carries the message forward that regardless of who is in office in Washington D.C., they should always be [ensuring] California is able to succeed,” Kounalakis said. “Beyond politics, California’s success is truly the success of the country.”