I want to be treated with dignity.


Working Californians who are struggling with poverty want respect for their contributions at work and in their communities.


Some listening session participants feel that they work without the respect they deserve and are stuck in situations without agency, autonomy, or ownership. They described a system set up to see them as a second-class citizen because of their race or ethnicity, gender, income, immigration status, or other characteristics society uses to define and categorize people. Their stories demonstrate the influence of historical and institutional racism, classism, and the dehumanization of the workforce.

These structural barriers play a large role at work. Too many people pursuing a scarcity of good jobs combined with uncaring employers make it difficult for some workers to maintain pride and dignity. We heard about work environments where employees feel expendable and easily replaceable. With hundreds of people willing to take the same position — and for less pay — many workers feel pressure to do anything to keep their jobs.

Past mistakes continue to haunt participants who were incarcerated as they attempt to build a new life. Employers overlook their true value, abilities, or potential because of their criminal record.

Outside of work, some participants struggled to maintain dignity while going without the necessities or needing help from family, friends, and government assistance programs. In these situations, more competition for scarce resources fosters resentment between already-marginalized groups.




Some of those we met felt they were seen not as a person but rather as a number or category (e.g., income level, immigration status, race, or a past conviction). They talked about “the system,” an umbrella term assigned to a loosely defined collection of agencies and assistance services, as well as public officials and decision makers. Their feelings reflect the history of racial discrimination and stigmatization of those who are struggling economically in America.


Certain participants feel that they have been unfairly denied help — or even empathy — when interacting with “the system.” They believe that programs like Section 8 Housing or CalFresh allocate resources based simply on what can be counted. However, the amount of income someone makes or their household size does not always paint the full picture. Their stories are more complex and nuanced than they could share on a government (or agency) application.


One mother in Fresno had tried to secure a new apartment that accepts Section 8. This was due to increasing violence in her current neighborhood, which was affecting the mental health of herself and her 12-year-old son. The woman had recently become unemployed, and when she went to Section 8, they could only offer her “one-bedroom apartments in a worse neighborhood.” The assistance program couldn’t help her find a place that would allow her and her son to have separate bedrooms.


We heard from some participants that lawmakers, leaders, and people in power didn’t see them as people whose needs deserve to be heard and addressed. They talked at length about feeling alienated from decisions that are being made. They see those in power as not looking like them or sharing their same experiences, which makes it more difficult to believe that elected officials — particularly those beyond the local level — could ever empathize with their situation, let alone help make it better. Other participants believe that people in power are fully aware of the challenges of Californians who are struggling economically, but simply don’t care. They question why they should even speak up if doing so wouldn’t lead to change.

California Latino Population vs. Representation. Source: The Leadership California Institute

When employers see my Hispanic-sounding name, they discriminate against me. So I try to make my name white-sounding.
— Part-time Security Worker, Fresno

I needed help changing my housing, but the folks at Section 8 only saw me as my income and wouldn’t listen to me.

— Single Parent and College Student, Fresno

I do think that they hear our story, I just think that they don’t care.

— Participant, El Centro

I don’t know what to tell [people in power]. I honestly think they wouldn’t listen to me. They say they’re going to help over and over again, but nothing changes. They have their own agendas.

— Participant, Los Angeles


Especially among participants who are not politically active, there is a general sense of hopelessness. After the 2016 elections, some first-time voters were especially discouraged by the results of the election.

The idea that the political system is rigged, flawed, and fundamentally selfish is prevalent in many communities of color. Participants easily cite examples of racism and discrimination to prove their point. Overall, there seemed to be little confidence that “the system” is there to understand and assist with their specific needs.




From some community leaders we heard that changes in the way employers think of their employees is negatively affecting the experience of many working Californians. Some employers lose sight of their workers’ identities and humanity when managing large workforces. Work is a source of anxiety for many people we met.

Due to automation, high productivity correlates less and less to a high rate of employment. This is changing the way that low-wage workers are perceived and valued.

Adapted from ICA Fund Good Jobs' Good Employee Matrix. Source: ICA Fund Good Jobs

Some of the workers we spoke with — particularly low-wage workers — felt undervalued, expendable, and dehumanized in the workplace. Those who are employed struggle to feel secure in their position, knowing that there are sometimes hundreds of people willing to do the same work for less pay.

This feeling was particularly acute among a few different types of workers: those without high school diplomas, those who faced language barriers, and immigrants. In California’s more rural counties there are too many workers for too few job openings. We heard that employers repeatedly remind workers of this fact, using it to threaten them or even encourage them to leave.

For the workers we spoke to, their sense of expendability sometimes turns into apathy. Because of strict rules, low wages, and feeling replaceable, workers find it difficult to connect and feel excited about their work.

Some Californians talked about their experiences working with apathetic coworkers. For instance, a former security worker in Fresno mentioned that a few of his coworkers stopped caring or lost hope while on the job. Their disinterest became contagious and, in his opinion, brought down the quality of work for everyone.

You’re just a number nowadays. If you quit, there’s other people that will take your job. I think that’s why the quality of work goes down. The people doing good work want more money, but are still getting paid the same [as those who are not].
— Part-time Security Worker, Fresno

Warehouse workers are held to unrealistic quotas that are physically demanding on their bodies. If they don’t hit their quota, they either don’t get paid or lose their job. They can be called on at any time, outside of their regular work hours, to answer questions about something they pulled or packed on the previous day. Because of the back-breaking labor and poor work culture, turnover at these warehouses is incredibly high.

— Participant, Ontario

The supervisors are supposed to give us water and breaks by law, but they only do those things when they know someone is watching. My supervisor tells us to say that we get those things all the time.

— Participant, Coachella Valley

At my most recent job, I was undervalued and unappreciated. This led me to quit…My employer, for the most part, ignored me and my desire to succeed and did not take the time to develop me into a successful leader.

— Mobile Research Participant, San Rafael




Three out of four male prisoners are nonwhite or Latino. Source: Public Policy Institute of California

The criminal justice system, which disproportionately incarcerates men of color, continues to punish participants with records even as they try to redirect their lives. A record locks people into a certain role or image that they struggle to shed when pursuing new opportunities. The lingering effects of time in the correctional system is particularly prevalent in communities of color, as are its effects on family members.


For those re-entering the workforce, the mark of “felon” made them feel demonized and rejected. For some participants, it’s the ultimate barrier to moving up to more experienced or higher-paying positions. Some employers easily ignore their applications because of one word. Other workers have had to fight for trust or respect with the employers who did hire them.

I am an ex-offender and living in a rural area where there aren’t the kind of resources for people in my situation. Which in turn makes it difficult when trying to blend back into society.
— Mobile Research Participant, Sonora

You put on a new suit and get a resumé, but nobody’s hiring. What are you going to put on your resumé? You get caught up in the [correctional] system and that derails them from getting into proper employment.

— Participant, Oakland


I am defined by my past record. If you are going to free me, then free me from my criminal record. One moment doesn’t define a person’s character.

— Participant, East Oakland

An idea from a participant in El Centro to support people with records through job training and financial aid for college.

From the East Oakland Session

From the East Oakland Session



The system pits us against each other

The way that resources are allocated and rules are structured in government assistance programs can create competition and resentment between marginalized populations. Antagonism can sometimes challenge the respect and dignity that Californians hope to show one another. Rules that dictate who receives what level of assistance differ between those who are born in the U.S., immigrants, and refugees.

When applying for assistance to make ends meet, some participants feel penalized for following the rules. For example, honestly reporting a modest change in income could cause a rent increase in their subsidized housing or a decrease in CalFresh assistance. Hearing that someone else in their community was avoiding these changes by not accurately reporting their income feels unfair.


I’m trying to do everything the right way, but it feels like other people are getting ahead of me because they’re not honest.

— Participant, El Centro

We spoke with a cosmetologist in El Centro who expressed frustration with what she describes as “a rigged system.” She had worked hard to set up a legitimate business and secure all of the necessary permits. But ultimately she feels that she has to compete for business with other people from the community who take cash for payment, work out of their homes, and don’t have a business license.