Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California falling behind in civic and economic participation

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Two major hallmarks of a healthy society – not the only ones, but important ones – are high rates of civic and economic participation.

California is falling way behind in both.

Voter turnout, a basic measure of civic engagement, has declined sharply to a historically low level.

When Jerry Brown first ran for governor in 1974, primary turnout was 54 percent. This month, only about 25 percent of the state’s 17.7 million registered voters, and about 18 percent of those legally eligible, actually cast ballots, continuing California’s steady decline to one of the nation’s lowest rates.

We speculate endlessly about causes of the voting decline, but some fairly hard data are available. We know that voting is high in rural and suburban areas and among older white Californians, but lags among younger, non-white and urban Californians. June 3’s lowest turnout was in highly urbanized, ethnically complex Los Angeles County, about 17 percent.

The wide characteristic gap skews political campaigns, as candidates tailor their appeals to the interests and fears of those likely to vote and ignore those who don’t, thus reinforcing civic fragmentation.

The erosion of voter turnout parallels the decades-long decline in “labor force participation,” the percentage of adults who are either working or seeking work.

California’s rate is now down to 62.5 percent, the lowest since 1978.

Just as low voter turnout distorts our politics, low labor force participation skews our economy, or at least our perceptions of the economy.

The unemployment rate, widely seen as an economic barometer, is the percentage of those in the labor force who are jobless, but if the labor force is declining vis-à-vis the adult population, it makes the unemployment rate look better than it actually is.

A bit of data from a new Census Bureau report illustrates the point. Just under 12.9 million Californians worked for private employers in 2002 and 10 years later, in 2012, the number was virtually unchanged, even though our overall population was about 3.5 million larger.

Another number from the Bureau of Labor Statistics further expands the employment picture.

California’s official unemployment rate averaged 8.6 percent in the last year, but when “marginally attached workers,” plus those working part-time involuntarily, are included in the equation, 16.7 percent of the state’s labor force was unemployed or underemployed – the nation’s second highest rate.

The bottom line is that scarcely half of California’s adults are fully engaged in the working economy. And it’s one reason why, by a new Census Bureau measure, nearly a quarter of Californians are living in poverty, the nation’s highest rate.

High levels of poverty and low levels of civic involvement and gainful employment tell us that California is not a truly healthy society.