Column: For Californians, the golden dream depends on where you live and how much you earn

By region, wealth and race, Californians are seeing the state's economy and their own finances much differently. Can state leaders help them bridge those gaps?
(Dreamstime / TNS)
Sacramento Bureau Chief

There was a swagger in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s message at last month’s California Democratic Party convention — an insistence that no state offers more promise than the one he leads.

“There’s no Alabama dream, no Kentucky dream,” Newsom told the party faithful. “There’s only the California dream, attainable and aspirational.”

But there are stark limitations to that dream that a new nonpartisan statewide survey lays bare, a yearning unfulfilled in California’s inland regions and among communities of color and those with fewer years of formal education. There may be one state government to serve the people led by Newsom, but hardly one view of whether things are getting better or worse.

“The differences are stunning,” said Mark Baldassare, president and pollster of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. “I don’t think we talk about it enough.”


The latest PPIC poll asked a series of questions about money and mood — more specifically, how those surveyed feel about the state’s economic direction and their own financial situation. Pollsters also asked about the problem of homelessness and whether elected officials are doing a good job. When divvied up by region, race and class, the results are sobering.

Take the question of whether the next 12 months will produce good or bad economic times in the state. Two regions — the Inland Empire and the San Francisco Bay Area — are mirror opposites of each other. Forty-nine percent of those inland are pessimistic, while on the coast the exact same share are optimistic.

That regional split is backed up by new economic data. The UCLA Anderson forecast reported last week that Inland Empire job growth over the past year was less than half of that in the San Francisco region.

No economic subgroup was more gloomy than people who earn between $40,000 and $79,000 a year, which includes those making the state’s median income. Even the lowest earners weren’t quite as worried. At the other end, no group was more hopeful than those earning above $80,000.

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Pollsters then asked how Californians rate their own personal finances. When looking at those who described their situation as either fair or poor — those struggling the most — there were additional gaps. Far more African Americans said they feel their families are struggling (77%) than did white Californians (49%) or Asian Americans (39%). Only 35% of college degree holders were worried about their finances — compared with the troubling 72% of those whose education ended at high school.

And, lest anyone think the financial worries are all about politics, more Democrats than Republicans gave low marks to their personal economic status, even as their party dominates state government. It’s worth noting that Newsom’s job approval numbers haven’t improved since he took office and those of the Legislature have gotten worse.

“Just because we are such a blue state, we think everything is moving in one predictable direction,” Baldassare said. “But these are real stresses and strains on society.”


The chasm of personal experiences was also revealed in answers about personal finances, based on whether those surveyed were renters or homeowners. Forty-two percent of homeowners rated their finances as fair or poor; among renters, it was 69%. The high cost of housing remains one of the state’s biggest issues, and efforts to improve the situation remain bogged down at the state Capitol.

Baldassare said lawmakers miss the warning signs at their own peril. “This is a test,” he said. “And it’s a test that’s going on in the context of an economy that’s generally pretty favorable. What’s it going to be like when it’s not?”

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