Taking our temperatures

by Carolyn Chase


"Ten years from now, do you think San Diego County will be a better place to live than it is now, a worse place to live than it is now, or about the same?"

So asked a large scale public opinion survey of 2,000 San Diego County residents published by the Public Policy Institute of California (www.ppic.org) in late July. Organized by San Diego Dialogue, it was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

According to the authors, the "intent of the survey is to provide the first comprehensive, advocacy-free study of the perceptions, attitudes, and public policy of San Diego County residents."

What was our opinion in June of this year?

All Adults:
Better: 18%
Worse: 38%
Same: 42%
Likely Voters:
Better: 16%
Worse: 41%
Same: 41%
Ages 18 to 34:
Better: 21%
Worse: 34%
Same: 44%

They also asked: "Do you think things in San Diego County are generally going in the right direction or the wrong direction?"

We were more optimistic:

All Adults:
Right direction: 66%
Wrong direction: 27%
Likely Voters:
Right direction: 65%
Wrong direction: 30%
Ages 18 to 34:
Right direction: 71%
Wrong direction: 23%

It makes you wonder what happened to those folks who thought things were getting worse. Wouldn't they also think that was the "wrong direction?"

Yet another version asking us our mood was: "Thinking about the quality of life in San Diego County, how do you think things are going?"

When asked this way, we look even more optimistic:

All Adults:
Very well: 24%
Somewhat well: 60%
Somewhat badly: 12%
Very badly: 3%
Likely Voters:
Very well: 23%
Somewhat well: 60%
Somewhat badly: 12%
Very badly: 4%
Ages 18 to 34:
Very well: 23%
Somewhat well: 65%
Somewhat badly: 9%
Very badly: 2%

What's it all about? Do these snapshots of our moods really matter? With politicians that rise or fall on the seeming whims of voters, pollsters, as well as those wishing to influence public policy outcomes are seeking to understand how a wide range of factors affect outcomes and what kinds of solutions will people be willing to accept.

According to the authors, this survey is intended to provide a "baseline awareness for measuring changes over time and includes comparisons with other major regions and with the state as a whole, focusing in particular on:

  • Ratings of the seriousness of specific problems confronting the region today, including growth and land-use issues, fiscal and governance issues, and social and economic trends.
  • Perceptions of the major causes of the problems today, including the amount of population growth and the nature of land use, fiscal stresses on the system of local governance, and social and economic trends such as inner-city decline and growing income inequality.
  • Support for policies that others have suggested for solving the problems facing the San Diego area, including specific growth and land-use policies, fiscal and governance reforms, and social and economic policies that seek to improve the conditions of lower-income residents.
  • Overall evaluations of San Diego County as a place to live, including quality of life ratings, commuting problems, future growth expectations, and plans to continue living in the county."

Some findings of the current survey:

San Diegans are quick to find growth-related issues at the heart of the problems. When asked to name the single biggest problem facing their part of San Diego, residents say traffic (29%), followed by crime (15%) and population growth and development (13%). Growth-related concerns again top the list when residents are asked to rank a number of local problems. Three in four say that traffic (78%) and the lack of affordable housing (74%) are serious problems, and more than half (58%) say that pollution is a serious problem. Three other issues - immigration (57%), local taxes (54%), and homelessness and poverty (51%) - are also seen as big problems by a majority of residents. When asked about a number of potential reasons for the region's problems, residents cite "the government spending money on the wrong things" more than any other reason (75%).

Several of the most popular solutions for resolving some of the county's problems were: building a superior public transit system (85%), investing more money in public schools (85%), and reforming local government so that the interests of the entire community are taken into account (84%).

But just because solutions are popular does not mean they are actually solutions - nor does it mean that the solutions are translated into policy. PPIC noted the consistent high ratings by San Diegans of government as ineffective.

San Diego Dialogue intends to continue the research with intensive focus groups that will discuss growth and potential strategies for dealing with it in much more detail. Chuck Nathanson, Executive Direction noted, "Forty percent of the people surveyed said that they would give us a day to discuss these issues-which shows a large interest. We are taking 200 of those people and, in groups of 50, spending a day with them on choices and tradeoffs that they see for solving these problems.

"There were some predictable answers in this survey and then some encouraging surprises. The predictable results were the big problems that people identified. They felt that traffic congestion is getting out of control, that housing prices are out of reach, and that government is wasting a lot of money--spending it on the wrong things instead of fixing the problems. The surprise was in how thoughtful people were prepared to be about solutions. The notion of building a transit system that really does compete with the car captured a lot of attention. Investing in inner-city schools, to slow suburban flight, was strongly endorsed. There was even support of revenue sharing at the regional level.

"One of things that we will be testing is how far towards regional governance people are prepared to move. Also, how much they want to focus on investing in older communities in order to encourage more compact growth. And, whether they want to move to more far-reaching measures in terms of restricting growth, or whether they think we shouldn't interfere with the status quo. From that, we should be able to give policy makers and elected officials some guidelines as to where the public is prepared to go and where it is not prepared to go, and where it needs to be presented with new options that aren't on the table."