By Mark Hedin
The first Covid-era study of Fresno voters found widespread suffering due to the pandemic, along with frustration over city policing and a strong determination to do something about it, researchers from UC Merced and community groups announced.
Fresno Speaks 2020 surveyors checked in with almost 2,400 registered voters in the city to learn how they’re being affected by the virus and to gauge their outlook on public safety, police reform, civic engagement such as voting and top community priorities.
They shared their findings at a press conference in mid-October.
Ninety-five percent of those surveyed said they’re taking their opinions to the polls on Nov. 3, as 78% did in the March primary.
Two-thirds of the survey respondents said Covid presented 2020’s biggest challenge, far ahead of the cost of housing listed by 8% or crime and violence, cited by another 8% as their top concern.
Half said they either lost jobs or had work hours reduced due to the pandemic, with 23% worried their household could run out of money in the next three months because of it. If the household’s annual income was less than $25,000, that percentage of people worried about going broke in the next quarter rose to 36%.
Fresno voters are remarkably in accord across the city’s seven districts that the path to safer communities is not through more police hiring.
Fresno Speaks 2020 counted 77.9% support overall for elected officials who advocate police reform. Throughout the city, that sentiment ranged from a low of 71.6% in District 6 to 81.4% in District 4, the survey found.
“Fresno voters do not believe safer neighborhoods will be achieved by greater police funding, not enhanced by adding more police alone,” said Pablo Rodriguez, executive director of the Communities for a New California Education Fund.
“Anyone who thinks differently is severely out of step.”
Fresno Speaks 2020 found respondents twice as likely to see job opportunities for people with criminal records (30.4%) and youth job opportunities (28.9%) as better ways to solve gang violence than devoting more funding to law enforcement (15.6%). Community and violence prevention programs also ranked higher, at 18.4%.
Despite Fresno being the fifth-largest city in the world’s fifth-largest economy, Covid has exposed some issues that, although not unique to Fresno, are acute.
The median household income in Fresno is $47,189, well below the state average of $71,228, and the 26.9% of households living below the poverty line is more than double the state’s average of 11.8%.
The percentage of households hurt financially by the pandemic is highest among the lowest-income respondents, with 60.5% of those earning less than $25,000 citing job loss or reduced hours.
Of those earning $25,000–$50,000, 54.3% took a hit, as did 43.2% of those earning $50,000–$75,000. Among those earning $75,000 or more, cutbacks affected 33.4%.
Nor has the pandemic been color-blind. It diminished the earning power of 57% of Fresno’s Latinx households, 54.5% of African American households, 54.4% of Asian American and Pacific Islander households and 42% of White households, the survey reported.
One presenter, Naindeep Singh of the Jakara Movement, allowed that Fresno’s situation is probably more dire than what the survey shows because the pool of respondents was only of people registered to vote and with a phone, thereby likely excluding some of the community’s most vulnerable residents.
Fresno’s population trends young (28.8% are younger than 18) and is 49.4% Latino. Asian and Pacific Islanders are 13.7%, African Americans 7.6%, 43.6% speak a language other than English at home and 20.6% of the people in Fresno are immigrants.
Between 85.6% and 92.5% of respondents—better than the national average—said they’ve been doing what they can to slow Covid-19’s spread, such as social distancing, wearing masks in public and avoiding crowds. But Fresno nonetheless became one of the country’s coronavirus hot spots.
Researchers attributed some of this to the lack of health and safety regulatory enforcement in the agricultural and meatpacking industries, a lack of transparency in how local officials used funds intended to fight the pandemic and the preexisting condition of Fresno’s large, low-wage, immigrant workforce operating without a safety net.
“When it comes to death, Latino and African American populations are overrepresented,” said Venise Curry of the Fresno County Civic Engagement Table. With 29,000 Covid cases and 424 deaths already, she said, “We are one of the hot spots.”
Curry pointed out how the region already contends with social and environmental racism that leads to higher virus comorbidity factors such as diabetes and high blood pressure rates, derived from living conditions that vary according to ethnicity.
“The mitigation and solution will come from a collaboration of people who understand social and environmental justice issues,” Curry said.
Respondents were also asked about how to best spend funds from the Measure A cannabis tax. Most favored here was “more after school/summer programs,” with 41.9% support. Improving streets and sidewalks garnered 29.7% support and “more police” 16.6%. Another 5.7% suggested improved bus service and routes. “Other” got 6.1%. These preferences held up across all seven city districts, the researchers found.
Survey respondents also expressed an interest and faith in civic participation, with 55% willing to attend meetings to seek out ways to counter racism, 52% willing to do so in search of educational matters and 50% would in hope of police reform.
Mark Hedin is an Ethnic Media Services contributor.