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New Report Reveals Insights on Working Californians and the American Dream

Listening is an important part of Irvine’s new strategy. If we – and others – hope to expand opportunity for low-income California workers, we must understand their day-to-day experiences, their values and aspirations, and the challenges that they face at work and in their daily lives.

Earlier this year, The James Irvine Foundation gave a grant to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) to survey more than 3,300 California residents, including more than 1,000 who are working but struggling with poverty. The findings provide us a unique snapshot of California’s workforce and how the views of those working but struggling with poverty compares to workers who are economically secure.

The new report from PRRI reveals that the American Dream feels out of reach for working Californians – and harder to achieve here than in other parts of the United States. On the one hand, Californian workers report their economic situation as better than the one they were born into, but they are skeptical that hard work and determination alone guarantee success.

More specifically, the report surfaces the following insights:

  • A significant portion of Californians in the workforce are struggling with poverty. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of all Californians, and nearly half of California workers (47 percent) surveyed reported as such.
  • Californians who are working and struggling with poverty experience economic vulnerability and hardships on a regular basis. Fifty-six percent reported that it would be somewhat difficult to afford a $400 emergency expense, and 42 percent have made difficult financial tradeoffs (e.g., putting off seeing a doctor or cutting back on food) to make ends meet.
  • Californian workers struggling economically reported disproportionate hardships at their workplace compared to those who are economically secure. They are more likely to experience workplace injuries (24 percent vs. 11 percent), racial discrimination (19 percent vs. 10 percent), and wage theft (11 percent vs. 5 percent).
  • Young Californian workers are more likely to question whether a college education is a smart investment in the future. While more than six in 10 (62 percent) of all Californians believe that higher education is a smart investment, nearly half (46 percent) of Californians ages 18-29 feel that getting a college education may not pay off.
  • Californians in the workforce struggling with poverty report lower levels of civic and political engagement. Seventy-nine percent reported no involvement over the last year.
  • Workers struggling with poverty are more likely than those who are not to say they highly value a number of social and economic goals. This includes reporting that being a good parent (74 percent vs. 64 percent) and having a job or career that benefits society are among their most important life goals.
  • Californians working and struggling with poverty are about twice as likely to help extended family members financially. Forty-nine percent reported helping parents (or in-laws) financially in the past year vs. 26 percent of workers who are economically secure.

The report includes much, much more, and the research builds on what we heard in 2016 through a statewide community listening effort that surfaced common themes and stories from more than 400 Californians working but struggling with poverty.

We strive to ground the Foundation’s strategy and grantmaking in our listening efforts, and to use what we hear to inform how we can have greater impact. We will continue to listen and learn and to share what we hear along the way.

We invite you to read the PRRI 2018 California Workers Report and share your comments below.