SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 1, 2004 — It took ten years, but the anger, distrust, and downright dislike that Orange County residents heaped on their elected officials in the wake of the county’s bankruptcy have given way to forgiveness and satisfaction, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in collaboration with the University of California, Irvine.
The share of residents who rate their county government’s performance positively has more than doubled from 24 percent in 1996 – when the county was still emerging from bankruptcy – to 49 percent today. A mere 7 percent today say the county is performing poorly, while 20 percent held this view in 1996. Moreover, about two-thirds (64%) feel that county leaders pay attention to what people think when they make policy decisions. Is this a case of time healing all wounds? Certainly, memories of the bankruptcy are fading: 81 percent of residents – including 64 percent of those who have lived at their address for 20 or more years – say they know little or nothing about the crisis.
“For years, Orange County residents have had a rocky relationship with government,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “So to hear residents today saying that government works for them is, frankly, astonishing.” In addition to their positive assessment of county government, majorities of residents in both the North (55%) and South (59%) County believe their city government is doing an excellent or good job of solving problems in their municipality.
Bolstering this positive view of local government is an overwhelmingly upbeat attitude about the county’s quality of life: Nine in 10 residents say things are going well today – a 19-point increase since 1994 and the seventh straight year in which these ratings have been about or above the 90 percent mark. Majorities say their parks and beaches (84%), freeways and roads (64%), and schools (64%) are excellent or good. Even the commute fails to produce anxiety: Most residents (81%) say they are at least somewhat satisfied with their commute, with nearly half (49%) saying they are very satisfied. Finally, a rosy view of the economy only fuels the positivity: Over two-thirds of residents (69%) rate the local economy as excellent or good, up 12 points from last year and a full 41 points from a decade ago.
Does Trust in Government Ride on Political Winds?
Satisfaction with government doesn’t stop at the offices of local supervisors: County residents have also done an about-face in terms of their feelings about federal and state government, reflecting the election of leaders who more closely share their views and values. Despite losing the state, President George W. Bush beat Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry by 60 percent to 39 percent among voters in Orange County. Today, 64 percent believe that Bush will be a capable leader in his second term. How have his victories altered perceptions of the federal government? In 1999, at the end of the Clinton Administration, just 21 percent of Orange County Republicans said they trusted federal government to do what is right always or most of the time; that number has risen to 52 percent today. Also, the percentage of Republicans who believe government is run by a few big interests has fallen from 72 percent in 1999 to 43 percent today.
True to form, heavily Republican Orange County gives sky-high marks to California’s Republican governor: 68 percent of residents say they approve of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s job performance – a rating that is seven points higher than his statewide standing. Orange County residents (62%) are also substantially more likely than Californians as a whole (44%) to say the state is going in the right direction. A single, but significant, pocket of dissent concerning the governor’s performance is evident in the county’s Latino community. A majority of Latinos disapprove of the way Schwarzenegger is handling his job overall (52%), as well as his handling of jobs and the economy (51%) and the state budget and taxes (52%).
The Latino/White Divide
On many issues, differences between whites and Latinos persist. Whites are far more likely than Latinos to have a positive take on the region’s quality of life (40% to 25%) and economy (77% to 51%). And standing in perfect contrast to each other, 16 percent of whites think traffic is the county’s most important problem, compared to 8 percent of Latinos, while 16 percent of Latinos think jobs and the economy is the most important concern, compared to 8 percent of whites. “Differences in the perceptions and priorities of whites and Latinos is not new, but this divide has taken on heightened significance given the direction of population change in Orange County,” says Baldassare. In 2004, Orange County became a majority-minority county, meaning no one ethnic group holds a majority of the population.
Home Is Where the Heart – And the Money – Is
Life is good in Orange County at the moment… especially if you’re a homeowner. Virtually all county homeowners (98%) say they are satisfied with the homes they live in, and most (80%) are very satisfied. The satisfaction extends beyond their four walls – 96 percent of homeowners are also happy with their neighborhoods. These positive feelings stem from an appreciation of the comforts of home, but also the reality of the real estate market: Most homeowners (96%) say their home values have increased recently.
However, this positive assessment is accompanied by an element of angst. “Homeowners in Orange County feel like they are sitting on a pot of gold,” says Baldassare. “But many also feel trapped by the run-up in prices because they know their home equity won’t get them far in today’s market.” Indeed, only one in four homeowners (26%) say it is very likely they would be able to find and buy a new home they liked in Orange County today. In addition, homeowners are more likely to be very concerned than adults generally (59% to 54%) that the recent run-up in housing prices will prevent the younger generation in their family from buying a home in the county.
On a number of measures, a deep chasm exists between those who own their homes and those who do not. For example, renters are about half as likely as homeowners to be very satisfied with the home they live in (43% to 80%). Perhaps even more significantly, renters are far more likely than homeowners to say that housing costs are causing a financial strain (61% to 27%). Here again, a Latino-white divide is evident: Latinos are almost twice as likely as whites (58% to 31%) to say that housing costs place a hardship on them and their families.
Despite the lack of affordability, the dream of homeownership is alive and well in this optimistic county: 88 percent of renters hold out the hope of being homeowners in the region someday. The fact that seven in 10 renters (68%) say their rents are increasing likely adds a practical incentive to their aspirations.
But are they dreaming the impossible dream? Only 15 percent of renters believe it is very likely – but 43 percent believe it is at least somewhat likely – they will find a home in the county that they like and can afford.
Although both homeowners (81%) and renters (67%) believe buying a home in Orange County is an excellent investment today, the affordability and availability of housing is of paramount concern. Housing costs and availability (18%) share top billing with population growth and development (17%) on county residents’ list of concerns, followed by traffic and transportation (13%) and jobs and the economy (10%). A majority of residents (55%) say housing affordability is a big problem in their area.
More Key Findings
Orange County’s consumer confidence index remains virtually unchanged from last year, dropping a single point from 97 to 96. The local index is far higher than the nation’s, which registers at 88.
The vast majority of residents (71%) are at least somewhat satisfied with the way Measure M funds are being used for county transportation projects. Although a solid majority (56%) say they would vote to extend the tax another 20 years if an election were held today, support falls short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the measure.
More residents say they would prefer a small home with a small backyard over a larger home with a large backyard if it meant a short commute to work (61% to 35%).
Despite President Bush’s high approval ratings in Orange County (57%), residents are divided on the question of whether or not he can unite the country behind him in his second term (47% each).
Despite favorable ratings for local government, fiscally conservative Orange County residents still believe that county government wastes at least some of the taxpayers’ money (46% some, 29% a lot).
About the Survey
The Special Survey of Orange County – a collaborative effort of the Public Policy Institute of California and the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine – is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. Inaugurated in fall 2001, this is the fourth in an annual series of PPIC surveys on Orange County. Findings of this survey are based on a telephone survey of 1,008 Orange County adult residents interviewed between November 3 and November 9, 2004. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 3%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on 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. From 1982 to 2000, Dr. Baldassare directed the Orange County Annual Survey for UC Irvine. His most 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.