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
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.
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.’
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