California

Californians were asked about the American Dream. Here’s why they said it’s dying

Unemployment in California is 4.2 percent. While many people have jobs, a new survey says many Californians feel like this state is no longer a place where economic mobility is possible.

A recent survey of more than 3,300 residents conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute paints a grim picture, estimating that close to one-third of all Californians and 47 percent of working residents are grappling with poverty. Housing costs are too high in California, they say, and wages remain stagnant.

The severity of financial hardship varies by race and ethnicity and from region to region. But the conclusion is no less bleak.

  • Many of the inland areas, including the Central Coast, San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley reported having a more than 50 percent of workers struggling with poverty. Only 27 percent of respondents in the Bay Area said they faced the same challenge. Rural regions in the Sierra foothills and at the top of the state did not draw enough respondents to be counted in the survey.
  • Hispanic residents were almost twice as likely to be struggling with poverty, according to the survey. Yet, Hispanic residents were also some of the more optimistic that the American Dream — the idea that hard work will pay off — still held true but success was not guaranteed.
  • Californians between the ages of 18 and 29 were the most likely to say a college education was more of a “gamble that may not pay off” than any other age group. Only 51 percent of younger residents agreed that higher education was a worthy investment. Responses were in the 60s for other age groups.
  • More than half of respondents said they would have at least some difficulty coming up with the money for a $400 emergency expense.

“You don’t get a sunny California picture out of the data. If you step way back looking at the picture what we see is a working population in California that is facing significant economic hardships in their personal lives,” said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute who also co-authored the report.

“(They face) significant barriers to success at work and (are) kind of struggling to hold on to this idea of the American Dream; that if you work hard and play by the rules you will get ahead. That idea seems to be slipping a bit. Californians seemed divided on that basic question.”

The sharp regional differences may be explained by who’s left in the Bay Area, Jones said. “The people who are there are the people who have been able to survive the rent hikes and (the cost) of real estate going through the roof.”

There was time not so long ago when the majority of households in California would have been considered middle class, said Sara Kimberlin, a senior policy analyst at the California Budget & Policy Center. “It used to be a majority but now it’s less than that,” she said.

The survey is unique in that it puts into context the many “concrete ways” in which financially challenged residents cope with barely making ends meet, Kimberlin said.

More than one-third said they found it difficult to pay their rent or mortgage or were unable to pay another monthly bill. More than 40 percent said they held off on seeing a doctor or purchasing medication for money reasons, 43 percent said they tried to save by reducing their spending on food.

“That’s how these kinds of broad abstract changes in the economy translate into the effects on real people’s lives,” Kimberlin said. “People really are putting off things that they need and going without and worried about how to be able to cover their basic needs.”

Kimberlin said California is doing well by many of the traditional measures of the economy: home sales prices, the unemployment rate, the state’s overall gross domestic product.

“Based on all the measures as a whole, it seems like things are going well. But if you break down how incomes have recovered, the incomes for the workers at the top, those have gone up since the Great Recession,” Kimberlin said. “Wages for workers in the middle of the range or at the lower end have stayed flat.”

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