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Special Survey On Californians And The Future: Little Knowledge, Big Worries About State’s Future

Californians Pessimistic About Growth and Its Consequences, Seek Greater Role in Planning

SAN FRANCISCO, California, August 5, 2004 — When Californians start thinking about tomorrow, it leaves them wishing yesterday wasn’t gone. Although few have a grasp of the numbers, residents are still deeply concerned about the effects of future growth – from gridlock to environmental degradation – on the quality of life in the Golden State, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Distrustful of state and local government, they seek a greater role for themselves – at the ballot box and through other forms of civic participation – in planning for California’s future.

In this large-scale survey about California’s future, 2,506 Californians were interviewed in five languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese). Between now and 2025, the state’s population is expected to grow from 35 million to between 43 and 48 million. However, few Californians are aware of the dimensions of the population growth facing the state – perhaps because they have a difficult time putting it in perspective: Only 16 percent place the state’s current population in the 30 to 39 million range and a mere 13 percent put the population at 40 to 49 million in twenty years.

How do they feel about this population increase when told about it? Fifty-nine percent say it will be a bad thing for them and their families, and only 14 percent think it will be a good thing. Pluralities across all political and demographic groups see this growth as a negative, but whites (66%) are the most likely and Latinos (46%) the least likely to see the increase as a bad thing.

“As a state, we are pretty clueless about our future prospects, and this lack of knowledge breeds pessimism,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. Nearly half of all residents (49%) think it will be a worse place to live two decades from now, and only 25 percent say it will be a better place. However, whites (57%) and blacks (49%) are far more likely than Latinos (39%) and Asians (34%) to think the state will be a worse place to live in the future.

Residents’ expectations about future quality of life in their regions are also decidedly gloomy. Nearly half think their part of the state will be a worse place to live in 2025 than it is today, and only 18 percent say it will be a better place. Central Valley residents are the most pessimistic and residents of the Inland Empire (Riverside and San Bernardino Counties) the most optimistic about the future of their regions.

From Bad to Worse? Residents See Current Problems, Future Crises

Without more information to go on, today’s greatest concerns and problems seem to influence Californians’ thinking about the future. The economy, jobs, and unemployment top their list of most important issues today – and their list of most important issues in 2025. Across the state, 29 percent of residents say these issues are the most important facing the state today; 24 percent believe they will still be a top priority twenty years from now.

On a regional level, state residents also expect that a number of existing, growth-related problems will be exacerbated in the future. Sixty-three percent of Californians call traffic congestion a big problem in their part of the state, and 81 percent expect it to worsen by 2025. Similarly, two-thirds of state residents (67%) view housing affordability as a big problem, and 78 percent think it will get worse over the years. And although fewer residents (39%) see air pollution as a big issue in their region today, 69 percent believe the problem will grow in the next two decades. Residents of the Inland Empire are more optimistic than residents of other regions that the availability of affordable housing will improve, and San Francisco Bay Area residents are the least likely to believe that traffic conditions will worsen.

Currently, about four in 10 Californians rate the quality of K-12 public schools (44%) and the lack of opportunities for well-paying jobs (42%) as big problems in their part of the state. As for the future, residents are evenly split on whether the public education system in their region will improve or get worse (45% improve; 46% get worse) and about the outlook for job opportunities and economic conditions (44%; 47%). Latinos (55%) are more likely than Asians (36%), blacks (38%), and whites (43%) to say that the public education system will improve. Blacks (59%) and Latinos (52%) are more concerned than Asians (34%) and whites (45%) that opportunities for well-paying jobs will worsen.

Road to Future Not Paved with Good Planning, So Californians Seek a Role

The general negativity about the future is also accompanied – and perhaps influenced – by a profound lack of confidence in government. Only 12 percent of Californians have a great deal of confidence that state government can plan effectively for future growth, and 46 percent have only some confidence. The exception? A majority (55%) approve of the way that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is handling plans and policies for the future. The state legislature doesn’t fare as well: Only 35 percent of Californians support how the lawmakers are handling planning for the future.

Ratings are also low at the local level, with only 15 percent of state residents expressing a great deal of confidence in the ability of local governments to plan for the future. This distrust leads residents to an apparent conflict: Although 77 percent believe that local governments should work together to develop a common regional plan to accommodate growth, 73 percent of residents also believe that local voters – as opposed to local elected officials – should be making important decisions about growth issues.

“The fact that local residents feel that they need to take planning into their own hands through the ballot box reflects the depth of their distrust – and of their concern,” says Baldassare. And while only 12 percent of Californians say they have been involved a lot in planning for their region’s future, 25 percent express interest in becoming actively involved. Blacks (35%) are the most interested and Asians (16%) the least interested in being involved a lot in discussions of the future.

Concern about funding for infrastructure projects does trump distrust at the local level: 60 percent of Californians think local government does not have adequate funding for the roads, school facilities, and other projects that are needed to prepare for future growth. One solution? Residents (68%) overwhelmingly support the idea of a local ballot measure to raise the sales tax by one-half cent for 20 years in order to finance roads and public transit projects. At the state level, Californians are divided on the issue of spending for roads and infrastructure projects: Half say they would pay higher taxes and have the state government spend more; 43 percent say they prefer to pay lower taxes and see less spending.

Is the Era of Big Infrastructure Projects Over?

Californians name school facilities (40%), surface transportation (24%), and water systems (21%) as their top priorities for public works projects. However, residents are of less than one mind when it comes to which type of surface transportation should receive first priority for funding as their region plans for future population growth. Forty-nine percent opt for road-oriented projects, including freeways (32%), local streets and roads (10%), and carpool lanes (7%). Forty-four percent choose transit-oriented solutions, including light rail systems (31%) and public bus systems (13%). Whites (39%) are more likely than other groups to prefer light rail, while 21 percent of blacks would like to see public dollars fund bus systems.

Californians’ top infrastructure priorities all require that the state make choices about how to spend money on new construction and how to manage current systems to accommodate population growth. Here, state residents are in general agreement, preferring in many cases to manage existing systems more efficiently rather than undertaking costly new projects:

  • Schools: A majority (55%) say their region should focus on using existing public education facilities more efficiently – through repairs and renovations, year-round schools, and other strategies – instead of building more public schools and universities (42%).
  • Transportation: Two in three residents (67%) prefer to focus on making more efficient use of freeways and highways and expanding mass transit instead of building new freeways (30%).
  • Water: A majority (55%) prefer demand management strategies – including conservation, user allocation, and pricing – rather than the construction of new water storage systems (41%).

“The public will simply isn’t there for undertaking massive new infrastructure projects,” says Baldassare. “Realistic or not, the public wants to see more efficient and effective use of current systems.”

Equity Is Seen as a Problem

Most Californians think that low-income and minority neighborhoods in their regions are more likely than other communities to have poor public facilities: Majorities believe these neighborhoods are more likely to have schools (72%) and roads and other transportation infrastructure (61%) in need of repair and replacement. When it comes to addressing these inequities, however, a smaller majority (56%) say that school districts in poorer and minority communities should receive more public funding for facilities – even if it means less funding for other school districts. Residents are more divided when it comes to transportation: 49 percent would support disproportionate funding for roads and other transportation infrastructure in these neighborhoods, and 44 percent would not. In both cases, whites are less likely than other racial/ethnic groups to support higher funding for these neighborhoods at the expense of others.

About the Survey

This Special Survey on Californians and the Future was conducted as part of PPIC’s California 2025 project with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This project seeks to raise awareness and encourage discussion about the growth-related challenges facing the state over the next two decades. Findings of this survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,506 California adult residents interviewed between May 24 and June 8, 2004. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on methodology, see page 23.

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 recent book, A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World, is available at www.ppic.org.

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 on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

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