Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to civic awareness

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

(photo credit: Rob Chandanais)

Is your city’s budget balanced? In surplus or deficit? Don’t know? Don’t worry, neither do a majority of your neighbors. When asked in a recent survey conducted by California State University Sacramento (CSUS), 75 percent of respondents answered this question incorrectly. Concluding that Californians know very little about local government spending, the researchers’ findings have broad implications for democracy and governance in California.

“The knowledge levels are pretty low in our survey when it comes to municipal budgeting,” said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate (PIE) and an author of the study.

In one portion of the survey, participants were asked five questions about their level of knowledge of fiscal affairs. “All five were general enough to apply to cities/ towns across the state and simple enough to be answered correctly — by even minimally attentive and knowledgeable citizens,” the report states.

The results? Only one percent of respondents answered all five of the relatively easy questions correctly. The questions ranged from the one that kicked off this article to what the local sales tax rate stood at. The study wasn’t just an indictment of citizen ignorance toward fiscal affairs; according to the authors, the results overall reflect a widening deficit in civic and political knowledge among Californians.

Unfortunately, ignorance isn’t always bliss. Given that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite for successful democracy, the widespread lack of basic civic knowledge is deeply troubling. In fact, the study suggests uninformed/misinformed voters may inadvertently discourage good fiscal governance.

Voters often call for better schools, safer streets, and infrastructure repairs, but a slew of surveys show the public doesn’t want to pay more these services. While there is no doubt that government can and should provide better quality services at a reduced cost, the underlying problem is that most voters simply don’t understand the fiscal consequences.

For example, 58 percent of respondents desire increased spending, on balance, yet only four percent feel local taxes are currently too low. Not surprisingly, the probability of preferring increased spending on services while simultaneously reducing taxes, resulting in a budget deficit, is significantly higher among those that are uninformed and disengaged.

The unrealistic demands of poorly informed constituents pose a great challenge for politicians, particularly during times of fiscal restraint.

 “With engagement levels reasonably high but knowledge levels woefully low, there are clearly large numbers of California cities and towns who are participating in the political process without knowing even the most basic facts about how their city or town spends money or raises money, or how the state is doing with regard to keeping its financial house in order,” the report states.

Despite limited knowledge, most Californians (76 percent) prefer voters make fiscal decisions, such as how government raises taxes and spends money, according to a recent PPIC report on the initiative process.

“Without equal efforts to increase public understanding of basic budgeting and fiscal issues,” said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies and an author of the study, “efforts to increase political participation could do more harm than good.”

Yet, even in the face of dismally low levels of public understand of government finances, there is a silver lining (of sorts). The study suggests that citizens with lower levels of civic knowledge also maintain lower levels of civic engagement. Uniformed citizens are less likely to vote or contact public officials.

Voters may chalk-up limited fiscal knowledge to an overly complex budgeting process. However, political ignorance runs far deeper than government finances. The study reveals most citizens don’t even understand the most basic structure and functions of government. An overwhelming majority failed to correctly answer what their city spends more on given the following options: public safety, food stamps, MediCal, or aid to other California cities. Although public safety is the only municipal responsibility, a mere 25 percent got that one right.

“If a majority of the population is confused about the basic division of responsibilities between local, state and national government, as our results show, the expectations and demands made on policymakers may be unrealistic,” Nalder said.

Voters can’t hold officials accountable for results without first understanding which agency is responsible for what. This also suggests that residents don’t know who to contact to resolve problems in their community.

Most attribute the abysmal lack of awareness to an overall decline in civic education, which Nalder says is particularly apparent on the topic of local government. “There’s not a whole lot of instruction that goes on formally about what counties and cities do,” said Nalder.

The study demonstrates a clear need for improved civic literacy. Civic education ensures voters are armed with the tools necessary to make informed decisions at the ballot box. The health and legitimacy of our democracy depends on an engaged and informed citizenry. Increasing our rock-bottom voter participation rate and enhancing civic knowledge is in the long-term interest of all Californians. 


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg