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Press Release · March 27, 2003

Special Survey of Los Angeles County: Spectrum of Discontent: Common Conerns, Distinct Realities For County’s Racial Groups, Communities

Crime, Education Top Problems for County Residents; Post-Secession Defeat, Many Still Open to Government Reform

SAN FRANCISCO, California, March 27, 2003 — Anxious about their personal safety and medical costs, cynical about economic prospects and race relations, Los Angeles County residents are deeply discontented, increasingly frustrated with local government, and ready for reform, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and the University of Southern California (USC).

Despite the command of recent national and international events, LA County residents identify decidedly local problems as the most important facing the region. Crime and gangs (26%) are seen as the most important issue, followed by public schools and education (15%), jobs and the economy (9%), and traffic congestion (6%). In their ranking of crime and gangs as the top issue, LA residents stand apart from residents in the rest of the state. But while crime registers as the most important county issue among all racial and ethnic groups and across geographic areas, the degree of concern varies: It is higher in the Central/Southeast area (31%) than elsewhere and higher among Latinos (36%) than among others.

  • 76 percent of county residents describe themselves as very (42%) or somewhat (34%) concerned that they or someone in their family will be a victim of a crime. Most Latinos (67%) and Central/Southeast area residents (54%) say they are very worried about crime victimization; relatively few whites (22%) and West county residents (34%) share the elevated concern.
  • 65 percent say they are very (42%) or somewhat (23%) concerned about gangs and graffiti in their neighborhood. Latinos and blacks (60% each) and Central/Southeast area residents (55%) are far more likely than whites (25%) and residents in other areas to say they are very concerned.

County residents today are also more likely than in 2001 to view the availability of affordable housing (54% from 40%), the lack of opportunities for well-paying jobs (40% from 31%), and population growth and development (38% from 28%) as big problems in their part of LA. Concern about traffic congestion has remained remarkably strong, with 67 percent viewing it as a big problem in their area. While anxiety about traffic is high among all county residents — and far higher than in other regions of the state — whites (71%) and West (70%) and San Fernando (69%) area residents are the most likely to say it as a big problem.

Economy a Growing Concern

When asked to evaluate the LA County economy today, only 24 percent of residents rate it as excellent or good, while 48 percent say it is fair, and 27 percent poor. Half of county residents report that their area is in a mild (12%), moderate (25%), or serious (14%) recession, with Latinos (58%) and blacks (57%) more likely than whites (44%) to say their area is in recession. And far more residents today (67%) than just one year ago (52%) predict bad economic times for the state during the next 12 months. This economic angst is also taking its toll on residents’ overall perception of the county:

  • 40 percent of county residents say that the region is headed in the right direction, and 43 percent believe it is headed in the wrong direction, with whites, blacks, and San Fernando area residents more negative than others about the county’s prospects.
  • Residents are divided about whether the county will be a better or worse place to live in the future (32% each), with an equal percentage (31%) expecting little change.

“LA County residents are in a funk that is not likely to lift in the near future,” says PPIC survey director Mark Baldassare. The consequence of such a negative outlook? Nearly one in five county residents (17%) expect to leave the county in the next five years; younger and more educated residents are the most likely to say they intend to go.

Little Support for Local Government, But Residents Want More of It

Economic and social conditions — as well as the lingering effects of recent secession efforts — are also affecting attitudes about local government. Seventy-one percent of residents say that the county government is fair (49%) or poor (22%) at solving problems, while only 24 percent rate it as excellent or good. San Fernando area residents (28%) are more likely than others to view county government in a negative light. While more residents (39%) say their city governments are excellent or good at solving problems, a majority (54%) still gives them low ratings. Residents of LA City are far more critical than others. Given their disenchantment with government, LA residents are open to a number of proposals for reform. Interestingly, many of these proposals would entail the creation of more administration rather than less:

  • 89 percent of LA City residents support the system of neighborhood councils being established in the city, despite the fact that only 31 percent had previously heard of the councils.
  • 68 percent of LA City residents favor a proposed “borough” system for the city.
  • 55 percent of county residents and 50 percent of LA City residents support the idea of dividing the Los Angeles Unified School District into smaller, independent school districts. San Fernando residents (63%) are the most supportive, Central/Southeast area residents (47%) the least.

Why support more government? Many residents hold the view that having numerous local governments in LA County ensures that local services meet the needs of local residents (69%) and that county residents get a say in more local matters (56%). But ultimately, residents believe that local voters at the ballot box (78%), not elected officials (18%), should make most decisions about important issues. Currently, residents favor new taxes on alcoholic beverages and cigarettes to fund public health and emergency medical services (64% to 33%), but are divided about raising the local sales tax to fund city-level services (48% to 49%).

Race Relations Still a Sore Spot

Given the vast differences in attitudes among racial and ethnic groups in LA County, it is not surprising that many residents are concerned about the state of race relations in the region. A majority of residents (53%) believes race relations are not so good (39%) or poor (14%) in the county today. Blacks (65%) are more negative than Latinos (58%), whites (50%), or Asians (45%). They also register more concern about some of the social manifestations of racial tension:

  • 53 percent of all residents believe racial profiling is widespread in their part of the county, compared to 79 percent of blacks and 62 percent of Central/Southeast residents.
  • 43 percent say they have personally experienced racial profiling or know someone who has. However, among blacks this rises to 74 percent, compared to less than half of other racial and ethnic groups.

On a hopeful note, half of county residents (54%) believe that race relations will improve in five years; 35 percent expect a turn for the worse. Non-citizens (62%) express greater optimism than U.S.-born residents (52%). Blacks (51%), whites (50%), and North Valleys residents (48%) are the least likely to say that race relations will improve.

Many Rely on Troubled Public Health Programs

Although most county residents (76%) say they are generally satisfied with the quality of health care they receive, many (70%) also say they are concerned about their ability to afford health care when a family member gets sick. This high level of concern is evident despite the fact that eight in 10 residents report being covered by a public or private health plan. Latinos (61%) and non-citizens (63%) are the most likely to say they are very concerned about health care costs; they are also the most likely to be uninsured. In addition, many residents report that they are consumers of the county’s public health care services:

  • 59 percent of LA residents report that they or a family member have either previously used (46%) or could see themselves using (13%) the county’s public health care system. A majority of blacks (64%), Latinos (59%), non-citizens (57%), those with incomes under $40,000 (56%), those with children at home (53%), and adults under age 35 (52%) say they have used county health services.

“It is a real worry that so many residents rely on a public health system that is truly on the brink,” says Baldassare. Public awareness of the fiscal calamity facing the system may be one reason why a majority of county residents (61%) believe higher levels of government — including the federal (31%) and state (30%) governments — should have primary responsibility for funding county health care for uninsured residents. Most residents (93%) say it is important for government to partner with businesses, nonprofits, and foundations that can help provide health services to those in need.

Other Key Findings

  • Ratings of Local Services – Pages 4
    LA County residents are less likely today than in 1998 to give excellent or good ratings to police protection (62% from 68%) and parks, beaches, and recreation (62% from 69%). They are about as likely as they were in 1998 to give positive ratings to streets and roads (46%) and public schools (41%).
  • Transportation and Commuting – Page 5
    Most employed residents of LA County drive alone to work (74%). Fifty-nine percent support a one-half cent increase in the local sales tax for transportation projects.
  • Attitudes Toward Immigrants – Page 16
    A majority of county residents (59%) considers immigrants a benefit to the county rather than a burden (31%). At the same time, many residents (84%) also see illegal immigration as a big problem (52%) or somewhat of a problem (32%) in the county.

About the survey

The Special Survey of Los Angeles County — a collaborative effort of PPIC and the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California — is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey, supported in part through a grant from the California Community Foundation. This is the first in an annual series of PPIC surveys of Los Angeles County. Findings of this survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,000 Los Angeles County adult residents interviewed from March 6 to March 18, 2003. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. For more information on survey methodology, see page 19.

Mark Baldassare is research director at PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998. His most recent book, A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World, is available at PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or state and federal legislation nor does it endorse or support any political parties or candidates for public office.