California is a state of large things: A 1,100-mile coastline, giant mountain ranges, big cities. In such a sprawling place, how much could people care about their own little neighborhoods?
Answer: An awful lot.
This is a state of neighborhoods. And Californians are very devoted to their own. And while surveys show we are mostly satisfied with our communities and our lives, we also want more from our neighborhoods – much more.
Californians’ hunger for neighborhoods that offer more opportunity is demonstrated in an extensive poll from the California Wellness Foundation and Field Research. Neighborhood love and hunger also bind the 30 stories, including this column, in a Zócalo Public Square series.
From the national media, you might think America is an especially anxious and pessimistic country. But in the Advancing Wellness poll, some 90 percent of Californians are at least somewhat satisfied with how things are going in their lives and 91 percent are at least somewhat hopeful about the future.
Such hope and optimism begins at home. Majorities of us see our own communities as healthy places to live, where people of diverse backgrounds get along and where we can find the parks, schools, safety and race relations we want.
But the picture is far from golden, particularly if you’re light on gold.
It is not news that California, by some measures, is our most unequal state. We lead the country in billionaires and are home to America’s richest region (the Bay Area), but we also have the nation’s highest poverty rate when the value of public assistance and the cost of living are included.
These differences are most intimately felt at the neighborhood level. If your community is polluted and you don’t know your neighbors, will you have health problems and be disconnected from the educational and health institutions that might change your circumstances?
There are big income-related differences in how Californians see neighborhoods, the poll suggests. Of upper-income respondents, 73 percent describe their community as at least very good on being a safe place to live; among low-income Californians, that figure is only 40 percent.
The poll also shows that people’s ambitions for their neighborhoods are high across the board. Californians desperately want their neighborhoods to help them find jobs.
That’s not conventional wisdom. Public conversation about jobs links employment to the national or international economy, and to trends such as technology to trade. But millions of Californians have become unhappily accustomed to stagnant incomes and long commutes. “Can your neighborhood get you a job?” is a fresh question.
It’s a question Californians want answered. Only 44 percent rated their own community as a good or excellent place to get a good job; 52 percent offered a negative rating.
The Advancing Wellness poll shows a strong correlation between how people feel about their own health and the level of opportunities they see in their very own neighborhoods. We Californians want a rich mix – including schools, parks and jobs – and we want them close by.
These days, the biggest California dreams begin at home.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.