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Testimony: Californians and Poverty

Mark Baldassare February 12, 2014

A bipartisan legislative caucus, Ending Poverty and Inequality in California, held its inaugural meeting this afternoon. The caucus includes 23 members from both the state assembly and senate, and aims to examine issues related poverty in California, develop policy ideas, and raise awareness. This first meeting provided an overview of poverty and inequality in the state and examined what these issues mean for California’s future. Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO, was invited to speak and prepared these remarks to reflect the contributions of PPIC research fellows Sarah Bohn and Caroline Danielson and the PPIC Statewide Survey team.


Hello, my name is Mark Baldassare and I am the president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. Thank you for the opportunity to speak as you launch this timely, historic, and “EPIC” effort to address poverty in California. For many years, PPIC has provided facts and reports with a range of significant findings on this important topic. For example, our work has shown that California’s poverty rate is higher than the U.S. average, and that one in four California children live in poverty. Recent PPIC studies have raised awareness about the growing income gap between the poor and the wealthy in the wake of the Great Recession. This work found that when we take into account the impact of government programs and the state’s high cost of living, 8.1 million Californians—accounting for 22 percent of our state’s residents—are living in poverty. I would encourage you to go to the PPIC website for our many publications in this area, and ask our staff experts to talk with you about their findings. I will also leave you with copies of the PPIC briefing kit on “California’s Future,” which includes some of our research and information on this topic and demonstrates how important it is to consider long-term challenges facing the state.

To date, PPIC’s research has documented the scale and scope of poverty and inequality in the state, and assessed the impact of programs intended to help those in need. In addition, the PPIC Statewide Survey provides a clear sense of what Californians themselves think about these issues. As the director of the survey, I’d like to focus my brief comments today on the public’s views—on the current economic landscape, the gap between the wealthy and the poor, and the role of government in addressing poverty. Since one goal of this caucus is to raise awareness about poverty and income inequality, results from our polling will help to show what the awareness level about these issues is right now. I’m going to concentrate on findings from our December and January surveys of all adults, and break out the results for those in our surveys with the lowest incomes—under $20,000 in annual household income—and other key groups.

First, let’s look at the broader context for this discussion: How are Californians viewing the state of the state? Our surveys show they are feeling more optimistic about the direction of the state, and more positive about the job performance of the governor and legislature than they were a few years ago. Still, only four in 10 say they personally are in excellent or good financial shape, only two in 10 say they are better off financially than a year ago, and just one in 10 expect their financial situation to improve a lot in the next year. Many also worry that the state could fall into bad economic times in the next 12 months. In other words, personal financial vulnerabilities and economic uncertainties are still widespread. As a result, Californians continue to name jobs and the economy as the most important issue facing people in California today, and many residents say they want the governor and legislature to work on this issue in 2014.

The widening gap between the wealthy and the poor has been a recent theme in federal and state policy discussions. And as the state’s economy is slowly recovering from the Great Recession, public opinion remains firmly in the camp that California is divided into two economic groups—the “haves” and “have nots.” A record-high 66 percent of Californians say that the state is divided into these two groups. A similar proportion, 63 percent, held this view two years ago, but when we first asked this question in January 1999, 56 percent did so. Today, of those with incomes under $20,000 a year, 67 percent view the state as divided into haves and have-nots. Majorities across income levels, political parties, education levels, racial/ethnic groups, age groups, and regions say that the state is divided into these two economic groups.

When asked to place themselves into one of these groups, 45 percent of Californians say they are among the have nots. Two years ago, a similar 48 percent said they were among the have nots, while 35 percent held this view when we first asked this question in January 1999. Today, among those with incomes under $20,000 a year, 69 percent say they are among the have nots. Sixty-seven percent of Latinos and 54 percent of blacks say that they are among the have nots, but just 31 percent of whites and 38 percent of Asians say this.

How do Californians view government’s role in these issues? Importantly, our state’s residents are steadfast in the belief that there is a role for government in providing a social safety net. Sixty-three percent of Californians agree that the government is responsible for taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Over the course of five surveys taken between September 1998 and December 2013, more than six in 10 Californians have consistently agreed on this point. Today, 70 percent of those earning less than $20,000 a year believe that it’s the government’s role to take care of those in need. Three in four Democrats view this as the government’s responsibility, and about half of independents agree. Fifty-five percent of Republicans disagree. At 81 percent, blacks are much more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to hold this view. Still, 67 percent of Latinos, 64 percent of Asians, and 59 percent of whites share this belief. And majorities across regions and most demographic groups see a role for government in taking care of people who need help.

When asked about the role of government benefits in the lives of poor people, 51 percent of Californians agree with the view that poor people have hard lives because these benefits don’t go far enough. In the six surveys that included this question, more than half of Californians have held this view. Today, 61 percent of those earning less than $20,000 a year think poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough. Sixty-five percent of Democrats agree, compared with 42 percent of independents and 24 percent of Republicans. Seventy-one percent of blacks say that poor people have hard lives, as do 61 percent of Latinos, 53 percent of Asians, and 42 percent of whites.

Given these views, do Californians think government can do more? Today, forty-nine percent say that government should do more to make sure that all Californians have an equal opportunity to get ahead. In December 2011, 54 percent said the government should do more, while 45 percent held this view in January 1999. But Californians are sharply divided over this issue by income level and party affiliation. The belief that government should do more is held by 65 percent of those with incomes under $20,000 a year and 58 percent of Democrats, while four in 10 of higher-income adults and Republicans share this view.

As these findings demonstrate, PPIC’s public opinion polling provides considerable motivation for the work of the “EPIC” Caucus. There are many Californians who are personally financially challenged today, and most residents believe that California is divided into two economic groups—the haves and have nots. Many Californians believe that there is a role for government in taking care of those who need help, that government benefits don’t go far enough in helping the poor, and that the government should do more to make sure that all Californians have an equal opportunity to get ahead. While Californians are divided along party lines when asked about government programs, we found overwhelming support when we asked about raising the federal minimum wage in our March 2013 survey. Since the state recently passed a minimum wage increase, another state policy option that would be worth discussing is the earned income tax credit, or EITC. Although our polling has yet to explore the public’s views on this idea, other PPIC research has noted that the EITC has potential for increasing jobs and stimulating the economy.

In closing, I want to remind you that the poverty rate in our state is high—again, according to PPIC’s calculations, it is 22 percent—and it is higher than the national average. What these numbers tell us, what our survey results tell us, is that many Californians are struggling. If we don’t do something about poverty and income inequality in California today, we won’t have the California we want tomorrow. I hope that you will turn to PPIC as a resource as you grapple with defining the poverty problem in our state and work toward finding solutions to this critical public policy issue for California’s future. Thank you for your time today.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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