California Dream Far from Real: New Survey Reveals Nearly One-Third of Californians Working, yet Struggling with Poverty
More than half of Californians say hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people
WASHINGTON (August 28, 2018)– A new survey released today by PRRI finds almost one-third (31 percent) of Californians are in the workforce and yet are still struggling with poverty. The survey maps how this group struggles to cover basic housing and healthcare expenses, and how these individuals are more likely than workers who are not struggling with poverty to find themselves exploited at work. The survey also provides a close examination of the lived experience of Californians working and struggling with poverty, including their economic concerns and aspirations, and their beliefs in higher education, family values, and the American Dream.
A significant proportion of Californians in the workforce are economically struggling.
- Nearly one-third (31 percent) of all Californians are working but struggling with poverty, which translates to almost half (47 percent) of the state’s workers.
Californians who are working and struggling with poverty experience notable economic vulnerability and hardships.
- Fifty-six percent of California workers struggling with poverty say it would be at least somewhat difficult to pay for a $400 emergency expense, compared to only 24 percent of workers not struggling with poverty.
- Forty-two percent of workers struggling with poverty have put off seeing a doctor or purchasing medication for financial reasons.
Workers struggling with poverty are more likely than workers who are more economically secure to report being taken advantage of in the workplace.
- They are also more likely to see the importance of workplace organizing. Eight in ten workers who are struggling with poverty say it is important for workers to organize to protect their rights.
Most Californians are skeptical about the link between hard work and success.
- More than half (54 percent) of all Californians, including nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Californians who are working and struggling with poverty, say hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people.
Contrary to some commonly held negative stereotypes, workers struggling with poverty are more likely than those who are not to say they highly value a number of social and economic goals.
- California workers struggling with poverty are more likely than those who are not struggling to say Being a good parent is the most important goal in their life (74 percent vs. 64 percent).
“It is striking that nearly one-third of Californians are finding that the promise of the American Dream—that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead—is not coming true for them,” said PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones. “Grasping the magnitude of this problem and understanding the real-life struggles and hardships that impact these more vulnerable workers, is critical for California policymakers, businesses and non-profits who want to work to create a healthier, more robust employment environment in the state.”
The regional variations uncovered in the survey are striking. Sixty-eight percent of workers in the San Joaquin Valley region are struggling with poverty, together with the majority of workers in the Central Coast and Sacramento Valley (56 percent in each region). Just 27 percent of workers in the Bay Area fall into this category.
Workers struggling with poverty are also more likely than workers who are more economically secure to report that they or someone in their household experiences a range of economic hardships. These include:
- Putting off seeing a doctor or purchasing medication for financial reasons (42 percent vs. 16 percent)
- Having difficulty paying rent or mortgage (37 percent vs. 16 percent)
- Being unable to pay a monthly bill (35 percent vs. 15 percent)
- Reducing meals or cutting back on food to save money (43 percent vs. 18 percent)
- Worrying about finding affordable housing (64 percent vs. 43 percent)
Californians working and struggling with poverty are also more likely than workers who are economically secure to report that they or someone in their household encountered a variety of negative workplace experiences in the last year:
- Were injured on the job (24 percent vs. 11 percent)
- Experienced racial discrimination or bias in the workplace (19 percent vs. 10 percent)
- Were paid less than the minimum wage (16 percent vs. 6 percent)
- Had tips taken by another employee or employer (12 percent vs. 5 percent)
- Had wages withheld without cause (11 percent vs. 5 percent)
Consistent with these negative experiences, workers struggling with poverty in California do not feel valued in the workplace. Sixty-seven percent of Californians and 75 percent of workers struggling with poverty say their employers generally see people like them as replaceable.
In the face of these challenges, Californians who are working and struggling with poverty recognize the benefit of organizing to safeguard their rights. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Californians, and 80 percent of workers struggling with poverty, say it is important for workers to organize. Seventy percent of more economically secure workers also agree.
“Californians working but struggling with poverty face a web of workplace challenges that make meeting basic housing and healthcare needs extraordinarily difficult,” said PRRI Research Director Dan Cox. “They feel undervalued by their employers and doubt that much can be done to improve their working conditions. And yet, they remain equally optimistic than other workers about achieving the American Dream in California.”
With little belief in a positive outcome from hard work and confronted by negative experiences in the workplace, 68 percent of Californians working and struggling with poverty would encourage young people to leave their community to find better opportunities. Sixty-one percent of Californians who are working, but do not struggle with poverty, agree.
Californians are not optimistic about the California Dream.
A majority (55 percent) of Californians say the American Dream is harder to achieve in their state than elsewhere in the United States. However, California workers who are struggling with poverty are less likely than workers who are not struggling to say that the American Dream is harder to achieve in California than in other parts of the U.S. (50 percent vs. 59 percent).
Overall, Californians still believe in the promise of higher education. Sixty-two percent of Californians say a college education is a smart investment in the future. Roughly as many (59 percent) workers struggling with poverty agree, along with 63 percent of more economically secure workers.
Social and Family Values
Contrary to some commonly held negative stereotypes, workers struggling with poverty are more likely than workers who are not to say they highly value a number of social and economic goals. Workers in California who are struggling with poverty are more likely than workers who are not to say the following are the most important goals in their lives:
- Being a good parent (74 percent vs. 64 percent)
- Holding a stable, well-paying job (57 percent vs. 41 percent)
- Being a part of a religious community (20 percent vs. 9 percent)
This study employed a two-criteria system to classify individuals who are both working and struggling with poverty. They must first be currently employed full or part-time, unemployed but seeking employment, or unemployed but on a temporary layoff. Individuals must also live in households with an adjusted income less than 250 percent of poverty line, adapted for household characteristics and regional variations within California.
The PRRI 2018 California Workers Survey was conducted by PRRI among a random sample of 3,194 adults (age 18 and up) living in California who are part of GfK’s Knowledge Panel. Additionally, the survey includes an over sample of 124 Californians who are working and struggling with poverty from NORC’s AmeriSpeak panel. This brought the total sample of Californians to 3,318 and the total sample of those working and struggling with poverty to 1,068. Interviews were conducted online in both English and Spanish between May 18 and June 11, 2018. The survey is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.8 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 2.7.
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.