SAN FRANCISCO, California, November 17, 1999-In contrast to the perceptions of many outsiders, residents of the Central Valley are content with life in the state’s heartland, with over half believing that the region is the best place to live in California today. However, a new survey just released by the Public Policy Institute of California and the Great Valley Center also reveals profound uncertainty about the future of the region, driven largely by conflicting views about the costs and benefits of growth.
The large-scale public opinion survey of the 18-county Central Valley region found that three in four residents rate their community as an excellent or good place to live. Fifty-five percent rate the economy in the region excellent (9%) or good (46%). Most residents are “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the availability of public colleges and universities (48% and 38%), outdoor leisure activities (43% and 39%), and affordable housing (37% and 43%). Solid majorities say the quality of local public services they receive is excellent or good, including police protection (69%), parks and other recreational facilities (68%), public libraries (60%), public schools (59%), and local freeways, streets, and roads (58%).
“Interestingly, many quality of life measures in the Central Valley today are as good or better than those in coastal urban regions of the state,” said PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “The one big exception is that people in the Central Valley are not as satisfied as residents in Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area with job opportunities in their region.”Growth, Associated Issues Are Key Concerns
Although they are feeling good right now, Central Valley residents admit to having qualms about tomorrow. They are evenly divided when asked if the Central Valley will be a better place or a worse place in the future (37% to 33%), with only about one in four residents saying it will stay the same.
Much of the uncertainty about what the future holds for the Central Valley appears to stem from a common perception the region is growing at a tremendous rate. Seventy-seven percent believe that the population of the region has been growing rapidly in recent years, and 74 percent think that the population will continue to increase rapidly in the next decade.
When residents were asked to name the most important public policy issue facing the Central Valley today, a group of five growth-related issues took precedence. Nearly half of those surveyed said that water (13%), the environment and pollution (10%), population growth and development (8%), loss of farmlands and agriculture (8%), and traffic and transportation (6%) are the biggest problems.
Given the expectations and concerns about rapid growth, residents support a variety of policies–some of them contradictory–for improving the region’s quality of life over the next 10 years. When residents rated eight policy options, protecting agricultural lands (52%) and preserving wetlands (49%) were identified as “extremely effective” policies by half of those surveyed. However, only one-third said that restricting development to existing suburban and urban areas would be “extremely effective.” Eighty-one percent also said they would support expanding the state’s reservoir system to help the Valley meet future water needs.
“There is a real challenge here for local leaders,” said Carol Whiteside, President of the Great Valley Center. “At the same time residents express support for policy prescriptions that would protect the natural environment and preserve farmlands, they want more water storage systems and are lukewarm about limiting development. Some tough choices lie ahead for Central Valley communities.”
Region Defies Labels, Lacks Common Vision
While many observers view the Central Valley as a bastion of conservative politics, in reality the region is less easy to label. Compared to all Californians, Central Valley residents are a little more likely to identify themselves as conservative (35% to 41%). However, relatively few Valley residents consider themselves to be “very” conservative (13%). The majority (58%) identify themselves as middle-of-the-road to somewhat conservative in their politics.
There are also significant regional differences within the Central Valley on many key issues, most notably among residents of the North Valley and people who live in the Sacramento Metro area. For example, North Valley residents are less likely to describe themselves as liberal, while fewer Sacramento Metro residents say they are conservative. North Valley residents are less likely to rate the economy as excellent or good (37%), while Sacramento Metro residents are the most positive (74%). Paradoxically, North Valley residents are also the most likely (59%), and Sacramento Metro residents the least likely (47%), to agree with the statement, “The Central Valley is the best place to live in California today.”
The views of Latinos–who represent a large and growing segment of the Valley’s population–also differ sharply from non-Hispanic whites in a number of key areas. Latinos (24%) were less than half as likely as non-Hispanic whites (53%) to name a growth-related problem as the most important policy issue facing the region. By contrast, Latinos were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to name crime and gangs (12% to 7%), jobs (9% to 4%), and schools (8% to 4%) as the top issues. While most Central Valley residents believe that the new University of California campus at Merced is important to the future economy and quality of life in the region, Latinos are far more likely (75%) than non-Hispanic whites (46%) to rate it as “very important.”
Although they give the Central Valley high marks as a place to live, most residents do not appear to identify strongly with the region as a whole. If they were traveling outside the area and were asked where they lived, only one in five would say they were from the Central Valley, while two in three would name their city or community. People in the southern areas of the Central Valley were more likely than people in other regions to identify the Central Valley as their home.
“This survey points to the incredible geographic and social diversity of the area we call the Central Valley,” said Baldassare. “While it is difficult to identify a common regional vision, there are many common challenges that could have profound effects on the state as a whole. State policymakers need to pay close attention to what is happening here-the region is poised to play an increasingly vital role in California’s social, political, and economic way of life.”
About the Survey
The Central Valley Survey–a collaborative effort of the Public Policy Institute of California and the Great Valley Center–is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. The purpose of this survey is to provide the first comprehensive, advocacy-free study of the political, social, and economic attitudes and public policy preferences of Central Valley residents.
Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,016 California adult residents in the 18-county Central Valley region, interviewed from October 18 to October 24, 1999. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. For additional information on survey methodology, see page 21.
Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow at PPIC. He is founder and director of the Orange County Annual Survey which he has conducted at UC Irvine since 1982. For over two decades, he has conducted surveys for major news organizations, including the Orange County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, KCAL-TV, and KRON-TV. Dr. Baldassare is the author of a forthcoming book on the changing social and political landscape of California (expected in April 2000).
PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.