It passes education, immigration as state's top concern, poll finds
Chronicle Staff Writer
Californians are increasingly nervous about the economy, which they view as bad and getting worse, a new survey shows.
Regardless of what economists say, 72 percent of adults think the state is in a recession and 76 percent expect the state and the nation to face tough financial times in the coming year, according to the poll released Tuesday by the Public Policy Institute of California.
The state's residents are more pessimistic about the economy than at any time since the group launched its statewide survey a decade ago, said Mark Baldassare, the institute's president and chief pollster.
"The economy is definitely what concerns people right now," he said. "People are really worried about the future. They're not convinced we've seen the bottom."
More than one-third of Californians - 35 percent - say jobs and the economy have eclipsed education and immigration as the state's top concern. That number has nearly doubled since December.
Residents' pessimism also is having an effect on the way they view the government. Only 32 percent of Californians believe the state government can be trusted to do the right thing most of the time, while 57 percent are convinced that a lot of tax money is wasted in Sacramento.
The federal government scored even lower, with 71 percent of those surveyed saying it does the right thing, at best, only some of the time, while 63 percent believe a lot of tax money is wasted.
"Californians are in a cycle where they are really cynical about the state and federal government," Baldassare said.
Home foreclosures, job cuts, teacher layoffs and other signs of the weakening economy also have Californians dismayed. More than 80 percent of those surveyed were at least somewhat concerned about the effect of the spending reductions in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget, with 56 percent saying they were very concerned, a huge jump from the 36 percent who felt that way in January.
"It's a big problem to see these cuts in the midst of an economic downturn," Baldassare said. "People aren't sure what (services) they're going to need and are starting to worry about their own safety net."
Deficit a big worry
That concern also shows in the way people want to bridge the state's looming $8 billion deficit. An increasing number of Californians, now 42 percent, want to see the budget gap closed with a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases.
Even Republicans, who have been in the frontlines of California's tax rebellion, have started to look at alternatives. While 50 percent of Republicans want the budget balanced only with spending cuts, that's down from 61 percent in December. And 35 percent of the GOP backs cuts and tax increases to reduce the budget gap, up from 25 percent in December.
Almost all Californians agree that the state's widening budget shortfall is a concern, with 94 percent of those surveyed saying it's a problem and 68 percent convinced it's a big problem.
The souring economy has taken its toll on elected officials. Leading the race to the bottom is President George Bush, who saw his job approval rating skid to 24 percent, a record low for the poll. Things weren't much better for Congress, with only a third of those surveyed happy with the job being done.
The numbers weren't quite as bad in California, where the governor saw his approval numbers drop to 44 percent, down from 57 percent in December. Both Sen. Dianne Feinstein (44 percent) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (41 percent) also saw their approval numbers dip.
State legislators are catching some of the blame for the state's budget woes. Only 30 percent of those surveyed like the job the Legislature is doing, down from 41 percent in November.
"The job performance ratings suggest that people still believe Gov. Schwarzenegger has the ability to get things done," Baldassare said.
Immigrants off hook
Illegal immigrants don't seem to be catching any of the blame for the state's financial troubles. Nearly two-thirds of California adults believe immigrants illegally in the country should be allowed to apply for work permits and stay. Another 72 percent, including 52 percent of Republicans, say illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the country for at least two years should be given a chance to keep their jobs and stay in the United States.
"The conventional wisdom is that whenever you have a serious downturn, it becomes more negative for illegal immigrants," Baldassare said. "But a strong majority is saying that (the immigrants) are a benefit rather than a burden."
Looking at the November presidential contest, the poll showed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton beating the likely Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, in a head-to-head contest. Likely voters favor Obama by 49-to-40 percent over McCain, and Clinton by 46-to-43 percent.
The poll is based on a telephone survey of 2,002 California adults, taken March 11-18. The sampling error for the entire poll is plus or minus two percentage points, while the margin of error is three percentage points for the 1,077 likely voters.