This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main, and co-published here with permission.
The bureaucratic inertia in Sacramento is often a byproduct of conflicting values or political chess—or, sometimes, legitimate questions over what residents of the state want and are willing to pay for.
But as recent polling by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) makes clear, some issues simply aren’t in dispute. By profound margins, Californians want the government to fund expanded tax credits and child-care programs for lower-income workers, and to increase funding for job training programs so that workers have the skills they need in a modern market.
“Any time you find some consensus around policy solutions, it tells you something about the extent to which an issue is seen as a problem,” said Mark Baldassare, director of the PPIC’s statewide survey, which is in its 25th year. “This year, for me, it was just the fact of so many people viewing the economy as an issue and searching for solutions, both for their own economic well-being and for Californians who are less well off.”
These unambiguous responses—71 percent in favor of expanding the state’s tax credit for moderate and low-income workers, 76 percent for increasing available child care, 81 percent for boosted job training resources—play out against a public mood of tremendous uncertainty. Only 16 percent of respondents to the PPIC survey said they were better off financially than a year ago, while 29 percent said their financial situation was worse.
And more than seven in 10 replied that when California’s children of today grow up, they’ll be worse off financially than their parents. “We’ve never seen a point in any survey at which this many people said that children who are growing up today will be worse off,” Baldassare said. “Hopefully, it’s a wakeup call for policymakers.”
The pandemic cost millions of Californians their jobs, at least temporarily, and plunged many families into financial crises. While the state said it eventually reclaimed all 2.7 million jobs lost at the outset of the pandemic, it took more than two years—and severe inflation further squeezed household finances.
At the same time, the government’s pandemic relief efforts, a combination of federal and state policies and funding, helped keep millions of Californians out of poverty. The PPIC estimates that during the first two years of the pandemic, programs like the expanded Child Tax Credit and CalFresh food assistance program (formerly known as food stamps) dropped the state’s overall poverty rates substantially—and cut child poverty nearly in half.
“Despite the economic shock of the pandemic, poverty in California actually declined because of major expansions to safety-net programs,” said Sarah Bohn, director of the PPIC’s Economic Policy Center.
Most pandemic relief programs have wound down, and poverty numbers are again on the rise. But the PPIC survey respondents clearly took lessons from those years. Said Baldasssare, “I guess what this tells us is that we’re beginning to see some of the more lasting effects of a whole population experiencing the pandemic, and seeing what the need for government intervention is.”
Two bills introduced in the State Legislature earlier this year aimed to address some of the issues. One, by Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Gardena), would raise the minimum earned income tax credit (EITC) for anyone making less than $30,000 a year regardless of their number of dependents. The other, by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), would allow families to qualify for the young child tax credit for years longer than they do under the current rules.
But both measures faced heavy political headwinds at a time of shrinking state resources, with estimates of their combined cost running more than $1 billion a year. Each bill was held in the powerful Appropriations Committee’s suspense file, effectively shelving them. It’s unclear if either will be reintroduced—or a new bill written—next year.
As in any survey, some of the PPIC’s results break down along partisan lines. Expanding the EITC was strongly supported by Democrats (85 percent) and independents (66 percent), by Republicans less so (49 percent). Pumping up funding to make child care more easily available to lower-income families received 51 percent support from Republicans, 89 percent from Democrats and 75 percent from independents. (In the survey, more than a quarter of the respondents either said they were independent voters or declined to state a party preference.)
But the big picture hasn’t changed much. More than seven in 10 Californians have favored expanded funding for child care since 2020, the first year the question was posed, and a similar share has remained constant for the EITC question. And the 81 percent support for enhanced job training cuts across all party lines and demographics. All of them cross the 70 percent threshold that Baldassare said constitutes “an overwhelming majority” for survey purposes.
As Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s other political leaders wrestle with priorities and funding, it ought to help that in a few areas, the will of the people isn’t difficult to grasp. They want the government to give low-income workers and their families a boost, and they want funding to help residents stay ready in a rapidly changing job market.
“These are not highly polarized issues,” Baldassare said. “These are areas that have become essential for the well-being of the state.”