Eroding Trust in Government Among Young Voters

Editor’s note: This story is part of an intermittent series. The Public Policy Institute of California is conducting small focus groups across the state to discuss the role of government, and KQED was invited to listen in. First names only were used to encourage candid conversation.

By Ana Tintocalis

(R. Michael Stuckey: Comstock Images)

20-somethings say they support November propositions that will fund education, but still lack confidence in government. (R. Michael Stuckey: Comstock Images)

A group of Millennials — young people aged 18 to 29 — are gathered around a conference table in a nondescript office building in Silicon Valley.

In just a few minutes, they will be answering some pointed political questions as part of a researched-based focus group organized by the Public Policy Institute of California — a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. The PPIC conducts public opinion polling, but they’re also holding smaller conversations to gauge more detailed opinions from Californians this election year.

On this night participants come from all walks of life — from a teenage grocery store clerk to an engineer at Cisco. Some are Democrats, some are Republicans, and others don’t belong to any party.

But as a group, they are not excited about how the U.S. is doing. “Uneasy,” one person said. “Worried and scared,” was the take of somebody else.

‘Our taxes are going to jails for the inmates to live somewhat well versus [going to] education. When you turn around and graduate, you don’t have a job to go to.’

These 20-somethings are anxious about their prospects for the future and are especially worried about finding a good job in a still-struggling economy.

It’s a far cry from four years ago, when the promise of hope and change bolstered the expectations of young people across the country.

“Government is unproductive. They’re large, they’re bulky, and it’s top heavy. And it shouldn’t be that way,” said Yukata, a young Republican who received his master’s degree at U.C. Davis. “When you look at government, you think of greed. That’s not how our founders wanted the government to be. They wanted our government to be small.”

Some of the others at the table nod in agreement. While they don’t see eye-to-eye on many social issues, one thing is clear: They feel lawmakers have turned their backs on providing an affordable, quality higher education in the Golden State.

Ryan, a San Jose State kinesiology major, says the classes he needs have been slashed, yet his tuition continues to increase.

“I could have graduated in four years, but every semester it was a struggle,” Ryan said. “I’d get my registration date, and there’d be [no classes available]. It’s the most frustrating thing. … You have good grades; you’ve been at the school for four years … and tuition just keeps getting more and more expensive. It just doesn’t make sense.” And it’s not just higher education. These Millennials also worry about how budget cuts are affecting K-12 education. Some of the participants say public school kids don’t see the value in going to class.

“I have a 14-year-old little brother, and it’s really hard to get him into school because he feels like he doesn’t need to be there,” said 19-year-old Amanda. “They need to put money into these schools so that [students] want to be there.”

Across the table from Amanda, Iliana says she is confused by the state’s spending priorities. She feels lawmakers care more about locking people up than creating quality schools and good jobs.

‘We can get all the money we want, but if it doesn’t go to the right places, it’s not going to help.’

“Our taxes are going to jails for the inmates to live somewhat well versus [going to] education. When you turn around and graduate, you don’t have a job to go to,” she said.

That sentiment helps to explain why most of the focus group participants support two state tax initiatives in November that would help to restore education funding, Propositions 30 and 38. However, they’re still skeptical — as are many California voters.

PPIC researchers have found that most likely voters do not feel more money alone will solve the problems in education. Some of the young people in the focus group say they want to see the money spent more wisely.

“We can get all the money we want, but if it doesn’t go to the right places, it’s not going to help,” said Matthew, a young businessman from San Jose. “Fix that problem first, then we can raise the taxes.”

In the end, the conversation circled back to the lack of trust in government. For many, their political identities are still forming, and unless leaders and campaigns engage them, their sense of discouragement could keep some of them away from the polls in November.

More stories from the Public Policy Institute of California focus groups:

From Silicon Valley: Eroding Trust in Government Among Young Voters


  • djconnel

    Message to young voters: get off your butts and vote this time. They cost Gore the election in 2000, Kerry the election in 2004, and Democrats the House in 2010 by failing to live up to their responsibility. The Republicans wouldn’t be able to cater to the extreme fringe they do today if young voters as a block would come out in proportional numbers.

  • Jennifer Waggoner

    It is shocking to me that leaders, campaigns, schools, media, etc do not
    better convey that the government is an expression of what we want
    collectively, and that voting is a critical expression of what we want.
    If you’re worried about what government does or does not do, then you
    should be voting. If you don’t vote, you’re letting government become an
    expression of the desires of just a few.

    This message has been lost, and it certainly isn’t the fault of younger voters.

    intentionally try to alienate, disgust, and confuse voters – particularly new voters – so that they will
    not vote. We have to teach them to not fall for it. To fight back! To vote when things seem so rotten! We must all rise above the
    onslaught of discouragement and disinformation.

    Blaming new voters isn’t fair. It also isn’t effective; it causes even more of them to turn away from our political system. Our research has told us that for quite a while:

    And that is why the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund works so hard so that you will:

    1) Let new voters know their opinion matters, and that you want them to vote. ASK!

    2) Give new voters practical information about voting mechanics so that they aren’t intimidated or misinformed.

    3) Provide fair, balanced information new voters can trust so that they can make up their own mind. Feeling pressured, manipulated, or that they can’t make an informed choice will just discourage them.

    More information from the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund: