California's hard times driving people back to the 'Dust Bowl'

Sacramento BeeJune 14, 2009 

Former Del Paso Heights resident Branddon Jones lives with his daughters, from left, Taiya, 3, Taniya, 8, and Kaiyah, 6. Jones, who is separated from his wife, believes his family is safer in Oklahoma City than in his old Sacramento neighborhood, saying that he prefers the occasional threat of a tornado to the sound of gunshots in the evening.

MANNY CRISTOSOMO / SACRAMENTO BEE

OKLAHOMA CITY — Fleeing the Great Depression and a drought unprecedented in American history, a vast wave of Oklahomans and Texans dubbed "Okies" loaded everything they could onto crowded vehicles during the 1930s and headed west for California. Today, in huge numbers, their grandchildren are moving back.

It doesn't take Loren O'Laughlin much time to come up with a reason why, in between bites of a burger at an Oklahoma City diner. "There aren't really people lined up on the streets here competing for a few scraps," said O'Laughlin, 23, who grew up in Sacramento but recently graduated from Oklahoma Christian University and opted to stay put. "Small businesses thrive here because networking is so easy."

As California housing prices went wild in the middle of this decade, hundreds of thousands of residents scratched their heads and moved to places where homes were still affordable, state and federal statistics show. When prices started falling and unemployment started rising, many continued to leave California for healthier job markets.

The result was five consecutive years when California saw more residents going to other states than coming. Although many stayed closer to home – Nevada, Oregon, Arizona – the mid-South saw a large influx.

From 2004 through 2007, about 275,000 Californians left the Golden State for the old Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma and Texas, twice the number that left those two states for California, recent Internal Revenue Service figures show. In fact, the mid-South gained more residents from California during those four years than either Oregon, Nevada or Arizona. The trend continued into 2008.

As a result, it's easy to find Californians – even former Sacramentans – living and working in Oklahoma City, a capital of the American heartland.

Ask these Okies-in-reverse why they traded the Golden State for the Sooner State – named for settlers who came there sooner than the Homestead Act allowed – and you'll hear a lot of similar themes: easier to find a job; cheaper to buy or rent a home; better place to make a fresh start. Ask them why they stay in Oklahoma and they'll add to that list a deep optimism that it's a place where things are about to take off.

"Oklahoma City is like Sacramento back when the Kings were in the playoffs," said Branddon Jones, 26, who moved about a year ago to get out of Del Paso Heights. "It's growing. You can get a job. It's just crazy."

Two different cities

A lot of that has to do with the downtown core, particularly an area called Bricktown where, on a recent Thursday, former Sacramentan Tim Higgins sat on a restaurant patio, watching water taxis weave through a nearby canal.

Around Higgins was a vast collection of old warehouses that sat abandoned as recently as 15 years ago. That was before the city's residents – though relatively conservative – passed a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase to improve downtown; before the funds from that tax increase built a baseball stadium, an arena (now occupied by an NBA team), a canal and a library; before at least 1,000 new housing units sprang up within walking distance of where Higgins was sitting.

Now those warehouses are warrens of shops and eateries, cozying up to the meandering canal.

"This would be the equivalent of Old Sacramento," said Higgins, 47, "except it's much more happening."

From the restaurant patio, Higgins could see a large crane working. Just to his south, workers toiled on a massive project to move a federal interstate away from downtown to make way for a park.

The bustle is very different from what Higgins, a videographer, witnessed back home before he moved out in October.

"When I left, all construction had stopped throughout California," he said. "Here I see a lot of construction, a lot of new businesses."

Slow and steady

Watching tax revenues gush into California city coffers as housing prices skyrocketed a few years ago, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett couldn't avoid a twinge of envy. He doesn't feel that way now.

Oklahoma City didn't boom, and it's not busting.

Things aren't perfect, but unlike Sacramento, there have been no city employee layoffs, nor are any being discussed. Unlike Sacramento, Oklahoma City does not face a giant budget deficit.

"We're flat," the mayor said.

And for next year? "We're projecting slight growth."

The metro area of 1.2 million grows by a percentage point or two every year, its housing prices keep up with inflation and its businesses tend to expand at a sustainable pace.

Oklahoma City's economy is diverse, but its three biggest drivers are energy, government and defense, industries that generally tend to be stable. Several of the largest natural gas companies in the nation are based here. So is Tinker Air Force Base, which employs tens of thousands.

Add to that some quality of life measures: little traffic, almost as many days of sunshine as Sacramento and residents widely regarded as among the nation's friendliest.

But the city does have its downsides, according to several of the Sacramento refugees. The weather can be random, even dangerous when tornadoes sweep through. Mass transit is woefully inadequate. There's far less ethnic or cultural diversity than in California. And Oklahoma City is seriously landlocked, a full day's drive from the nearest coastline.

The recession also is starting to bite. Oklahoma's unemployment rate has jumped in the last year to about 6 percent.

All about jobs

Unemployment in California, however, now stands at 11 percent, nearly twice Oklahoma's. It doesn't take an economist to figure out which state offers more options to job seekers.

Branddon Jones certainly thinks his luck has improved since leaving Sacramento. He joined the Army as a cook after graduating from Grant High in 2001. Three years later, his mom died, and he came back to his hometown.

A father himself by then, Jones struggled to make it in Del Paso Heights and, later, south Sacramento. He had a brush with the law – a weapons charge. He worked some decent, low-skill jobs but could barely afford rent. His dad, meanwhile, was making a good wage in Oklahoma City.

Jones thought about his life in 10 years, the lives of his three young daughters in 10 years, and he saw himself working the same types of jobs and living in the same places. He felt like he couldn't catch a break.

"You've got to have something to make it out of there," he said, referring to south Sacramento and Del Paso Heights. "In Oklahoma City, if you just wake up every morning and do what you are supposed to do, you won't have any problems."

After arriving in 2008, Jones quickly found a few good jobs to choose from. Generally he has found pay comparable to California, but there are a couple of key differences, he said.

If he feels like he is being mistreated or cheated, Jones said, he can shrug his shoulders, quit and quickly find something else just as good. He did that recently when he said a boss didn't follow through with a promised raise.

Affordable housing

More importantly, Jones said, his money stretches a lot further. A gas station clerk in Oklahoma makes about $1.50 an hour less than a gas station clerk in California. But Jones takes his money from working behind the counter and spends $400 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. In Del Paso Heights, a similarly sized apartment could easily cost $750.

That's where the similarity ends, too. Jones is not living in the Oklahoma City equivalent of Del Paso Heights. He lives a short drive from a large city lake, not far from a vibrant commercial strip featuring a Romano's Italian Grill and a Chuck-E-Cheese.

All three of his kids, ages 3, 6 and 8, live with him, and they love it. Jones, who is separated from his wife, said his family is safer here than in his old neighborhood – he prefers the occasional threat of a tornado to the sound of gunshots in the evening.

Tim Higgins has swankier digs. He sleeps on the 12th floor of a downtown high-rise in a one-bedroom apartment. Yet he pays just slightly more than $800 a month in rent, including utilities.

"When I arrived here, I managed to get a local phone number, a local bank account and an apartment in a secured downtown building – all in one hour," Higgins said. "I don't know anywhere else where that would happen that quickly."

Higgins also came to Oklahoma in pursuit of opportunity. He had spent 15 years running video and audio at Arco Arena, including for the Sacramento Kings. They parted ways in 2003, and Higgins had been freelancing since then, hoping to get back into the National Basketball Association.

Enter the Oklahoma City Thunder, the newest team in the NBA. They needed a video guy, and they offered the gig to Higgins just days before their inaugural season began in October. He took it, and has worked almost nonstop since.

It's a simple equation for Higgins. "As far as being more attractive than Sacramento – yes, there is a job here for me!" he said.

Losing good people

Many of those leaving California for the mid-South have valuable skills, census figures show. They skew younger and highly educated, the kind of people upon which a state builds its future.

In concrete terms: California is losing people like Loren O'Laughlin.

O'Laughlin is an artist and designer. He left Rancho Cordova when he got a scholarship from Oklahoma Christian University, and he liked the college's vibe. He never planned to stay in the area, but he met his wife in college, and he was wooed by a local company months before he graduated with a bachelor's degree in art and design.

Now O'Laughlin designs trophies for MTM Recognition, a large outfit with big-name clients. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. raises that massive trophy over his head after winning a big NASCAR race, there's a pretty good chance that O'Laughlin helped design it.

O'Laughlin earns $16 an hour. It may not seem like a lot, but, along with his wife's job teaching English as a second language, the couple can afford a two-bedroom house in a cute neighborhood – think the area around the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento – for which they pay $690 a month. (The median income is about 20 percent lower in Oklahoma City than in Sacramento, but that income goes 10 percent further, federal statistics show.)

O'Laughlin admits to having mixed feelings about his adopted city. His wife, Penelope, grew up in Oklahoma, and she wants to leave as soon as she finishes her master's degree.

Devoutly Christian, O'Laughlin is nonetheless frustrated by what he perceives as the religious ethos in many Oklahoma City suburbs. Or as he puts it in a typical rapid-fire tirade: "The strange hybrid of Americana-consumer-driven-megachurch-evangelical-nothing-is-wrong-here-everything's-fine-oil-money-endowed-conservative Christianity that bombs recklessly around town in an H2."

That frustration shows up in O'Laughlin's art, much of it hanging these days at a local coffee shop where he is the artist of the month. His paintings are often bleak, modern interpretations of religious themes such as the stoning of St. Stephen. They're often painted on scraps of junk metal he finds while riding his bike to work.

O'Laughlin is thinking about moving back to the West Coast, but to Portland, Ore., not Sacramento. Still, standing amid scrap he is rusting to artistic perfection in his backyard, he worries about leaving behind a good situation.

"The thought of moving somewhere else, as much as Penelope wants to be somewhere else," he said, "we can't afford to have the lifestyle we have here."

No intention of returning

As much as California could use more creative talent like O'Laughlin's, it needs newly minted nurses like Angela Outlaw even more. The state is short about 50,000 registered nurses, according to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

But Outlaw has no intention of returning to California. She has many quality hospitals to choose from in Oklahoma, and if she does move, she said, it will be to someplace like Austin, not like Antelope.

"I meet more Californians here than anyone else," said Outlaw, 42. "And, most of them are planning on staying here permanently."

Outlaw first left Sacramento for Texas but headed to Oklahoma a few years ago when her mother was transferred to Tinker Air Force Base after McClellan shut down. A California State University, Sacramento, graduate, Outlaw went back to school at the University of Oklahoma and will finish her nursing degree within a year.

She spends many of her weekends hiking in the Wichita Mountains southwest of Oklahoma City. She admits that "the mountains are really hills," especially compared to the Sierra Nevada, but says the canyons and the granite outcroppings covered with deep green shrubbery nonetheless inspire her.

Outlaw converted to Christianity a few years after moving to the mid-South and worships at one of Chuck Smith's nondenominational Calvary Chapel churches, part of a national evangelical movement that maintains the Bible is complete and infallible.

"I feel free to express my faith in God here," she said. "In California, I find that people are often less accepting of people's spiritual beliefs."

Sitting just a few miles from a modern airport named after perhaps the most famous Oklahoman ever to leave for California, Will Rogers, Outlaw talked about her new home the same way an Okie might have talked about the Central Valley decades ago.

"I never thought I would leave California," Outlaw said. "But all the neat places I've seen, the people I've met – I'm really glad I left."

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