I want the opportunity to make my situation better.


Some Californians feel trapped in their current situation, leaving them unable to make progress toward their goals.


Participants want the freedom and flexibility to pursue better opportunities within or outside of their communities. However, the weight of joblessness, debt, the high cost of living, and family obligations sometimes keeps them from making progress.

Although government and nonprofit assistance programs in California can help people below or near the poverty line, some Californians still don’t have access to, or know how to access, the help they need. It takes time and patience to locate and apply for the right help.

Some participants encounter obstacles to full mobility — from the day-to-day costs of owning a car to the financial and social costs of moving to a new community for a job.

For Californians lacking the right skills and training, low-wage work often turns into a dead end. Some participants feel stuck with little time to find alternate paths. For some of the immigrants we spoke with, not knowing English confines them to their own community, even if the resources that could help them build a better life exist in another area.

Young people from struggling families confront a series of daunting first steps to independence. They face pressure to support themselves without help, give back to their families, and forge a path forward for younger siblings, all at the same time.




Moving out for the first time, finding a new job, or applying for college are insurmountable barriers for some listening session participants. The initial cost and risk involved are sometimes too high. Some young, low-wage workers struggle to make enough money to find their own apartments or even move in with roommates, given California’s high cost of living. 

Even college graduates who went to college to access higher-paying jobs find themselves under-qualified for positions in their field and only able to take low-wage or part-time work. They’ve done everything they’re supposed to do to build a better life for themselves, but they still don’t get the reward.

When I was starting out, you got a car, a house. You got the necessities. Today’s job markets don’t even help you get the necessities.
— Substance Abuse Counselor, Oakland

Some applied to dozens of jobs only to be denied for a “lack of experience.” But the only way to build experience was through a job. At the same time, they found themselves competing against older, more experienced workers for the same entry-level positions.

As industries change and work evolves, participants shared that pathways to new skills are still scarce in some communities. For recently unemployed Californians, even those with experience in the workforce, learning new skills is sometimes the only way to start a new life.

For older workers, pivoting to a new career or stepping out into the workforce for the first time can be scary. A recently widowed mother in Fresno is making the transition from homemaker to full-time employee. Unfamiliar with new technology and having little work experience, she has relied on free community resources to quickly build the skills and confidence she needs to provide for her family. 


I’m the first in my family to go to college, so it’s hard for my parents to help me with college applications.

— Participant, Salinas

The biggest challenge I face building the best [life for] me and my fiancé is finding a job and a place to stay. We have all the qualifications for them. Yet no one will hire us or accept our application for an apartment.

— Mobile Research Participant, McKinleyville

There’s not a lot of opportunities for college grads to get real full-time jobs that have a decent amount of income because every job application says you need three years experience. So, a lot of us are stuck with unpaid internships.

— Mobile Research Participant, San Diego





Income needed to purchase a median-priced home (20% down payment) in various California cities. Source: Sacramento Bee

Owning a home is the top aspiration for the majority of Californians we spoke to. As a key component of the American dream, it signifies success, safety, and security. Once an attainable goal for many working-class families, rising real estate prices and falling wages leave too many families shut out of home ownership.

For some of our participants, there are fewer and fewer viable paths to homeownership. Instead, multi-generational households are living together longer. We heard and saw that it was becoming the norm for more than one family to share a small home to pay for the basics. Some families have moved further away from metro areas like San Francisco and San Diego to find homes that they can afford.

Beyond homeownership, participants want housing security in general. For instance, participants in Oakland aired their frustrations about high rents and gentrification in their neighborhoods. Some were sad and angry at how they could no longer afford to live where they grew up. Ultimately participants hoped for stable living situations, be it through home ownership or affordable rents and fair landlords.

My dream is that I will be able to apply for affordable, low-income housing. At least that our living situation will get better.
— Hotel Housekeeper, San Francisco

Right now, my family lives in a [Single Resident Occupancy]. The rooms are too small for us all to live together, so we are separated.

— Participant, San Francisco

I currently live in an in-law unit at my parent’s house because I am unable to afford rent in Marin County. This is ridiculous! How are we supposed to be able to save for a family, to buy a house or for retirement? We won’t be able to until something is done!

— Mobile Research Participant, San Rafael

Governor Brown, can we please have more affordable housing? A single mother like me…It is really is hard for me to get ahead. I’m always robbing Peter to pay Paul.

— Mobile Research Participant, Palo Alto


You have to have perfect credit just to rent now. If I had perfect credit, I would buy a house.

— Participant, Ontario

When asked to draw their dreams for the future, many participants drew houses.





Mobility limits participants in two ways. The first is getting around day-to-day, from home to work and other appointments. The other way is the inability to move to other parts of the state to pursue better opportunities. We talked to some working Californians who couldn’t drive or who didn’t have access to a car.

Californians without cars, especially in the Bay Area, expressed frustration with the high cost of public transportation or the safety and reliability of those transportation systems. In some rural parts of California, like Eastern Coachella Valley, public transportation doesn’t exist, or limited stops prevent people from easily accessing it.

In terms of mobility on a larger scale, some participants lacked the money or opportunity to move to other neighborhoods or cities. Communities with better jobs often have a higher cost of living, making the initial adjustment to new rent prices and other costs difficult.

Moving into a new community without an already-established network is a risk — one could become cash-strapped and without the support of family and friends. Conversely, moving back to one’s hometown is equally difficult for some participants due to lack of jobs and established network.

The biggest challenge that I face to have a good life for myself, my two kids, and my fiancé is the cost of living. We cannot move out of his parent’s house. We can’t afford to live on our own or have our own life and it’s really hard.
— Mobile Research Participant, Dunsmuir

There are better jobs outside of Oakland, but BART and Muni tickets are too expensive.

— Participant, East Oakland

It’s very difficult to move somewhere else and start over, especially with children. I was evicted, and I've looked at lots of places. When they saw I had children, they’d say ‘no.’

— Participant, Oakland


The bus didn’t even come to our community until we fought for it. The stop is still two miles away from my house.

— Participant, Coachella Valley

There might be better paying jobs up North, but I can’t afford to move out of my family’s home.

— Particpant, El Centro





Annual enrollment in public assistance programs of working families in California. Working families make up 50 percent of state expenditures on public assistance programs in California. Source: UC Berkeley Labor Center (Table 6)

Navigating a complex system to secure necessities, like food or housing assistance, can be confusing and frustrating. For some Californians, particularly recent immigrants, that task is even more difficult due to their limited English skills. For instance, one Fresno mother wanted to help her child who was not being treated fairly at school. Because she was not confident speaking English, she didn’t feel empowered to advocate for her son. She felt isolated from a system that was critical to her son having a better future.

The complexity of assistance programs made it difficult for some participants to find the resources they needed. Whether energy bill vouchers, childcare, job-training services, or other types of support, there are many organizations and institutions providing essential resources and assistance across California. However, some participants feel that these programs are fragmented, unevenly distributed, or simply unavailable when they need them.

California has the highest percentage of residents that speak a language other than English at home. Source: U.S. Census

In cities like Fresno and San Diego, participants spoke of programs that seemed to operate at or beyond their capacity. In some instances, participants have to wait in long lines to access essential programs. They often learned about these programs through word of mouth, meaning their access depended heavily on the collective knowledge of their networks.

California’s rural communities, like those located in eastern San Bernardino and Riverside counties, are still growing their nonprofit infrastructure and surviving with little public support. In these areas, some residents feel that they must essentially fend for themselves. For example, families in the areas of Coachella and Mecca felt cut off from assistance from the county.

When I got laid off from my manufacturing job, I didn’t know what resources were available to help me find another job.
— Participant, Ontario

I don’t speak English well, and I needed help looking for work after having a baby. I went back to where I worked before, but everything had changed. The people who spoke Spanish and helped with my application were no longer there.

— Participant, Oakland

Flexible English classes… that’s what my husband needs. When you’re getting out of work you should be able to just do two or three hours, one or two days a week.

— Participant, El Centro


Some listening sessions turned into a resource exchange, with participants scribbling names, phone numbers, and addresses of local services onto small pieces of paper.