What Issues Matter To San Francisco Voters?

by Margaret Brodkin on April 13, 2004

What issues do San Franciscans think are most
important? The Binder Poll tells all.

In mid January, 2004, David Binder Research conducted a poll of 600 San Franciscans for one of the measures on the March ballot. Voters were asked an open-ended question: What is the most important public policy issue facing San Francisco today? Respondents were not led in any way, nor given specific answers from which to choose, and were allowed to identify up to three issues. Answers were coded into 18 categories. Results are listed below:

% of San Franciscans who ranked issues as top priorities
Schools, pre-school, after-school————21%
City Budget——————————–8%
Health Care——————————–8%
Crime and Public safety———————-4%
Government Leadership———————-4%
Cost of Living——————————3%
Traffic Congestion————————–2%
Muni Taxes——————————–2%
Growth and Development——————–2%
Environment ——————————2%
Don’t know——————————–6%

Public concern about homelessness overwhelmed all other priorities, and cut across all parts of the city and all subgroups analyzed. Questioners reported that this concern was expressed as a desire to see fewer homeless people on the streets, although it was usually accompanied by a desire to help, rather than punish the homeless. The extent to which the city is united in the desire to address a single issue is unusual, but in this case not surprising.

What was very surprising, however, was that public education (and related children’s services) emerged as the second highest priority, and that it ranked significantly above all of the rest of the issues. That this was the result in the city with the smallest percentage of children in the country is truly a tribute to a population that understands that what happens to “other people’s children” determines the future for all of us.

Most surprising (and in my judgment most heartening) of all the results of the poll is the clear indication that San Franciscans understand very well the importance of prevention. Crime and public safety issues were cited as a top priority by only 4% of the respondents, coming way behind education, housing and health care – as well as issues related to the city’s economic well-being. When the results were analyzed by many subgroups, including ethnicity and supervisorial district in which the respondents lived, the priorities varied very little. In fact, in the area of the city with highest crime rate (District 10), education was ranked a priority TEN TIMES more frequently than crime and public safety.

The high ranking of education, housing and health compared to crime and public safety has great implications for the city budget. The ranking suggests that it is time to reassess the assumption that traditional public protection agencies are the public’s top priority for ensuring safe and stable communities. Clearly, children’s services and housing should be budget priorities, while law enforcement and fire should be subject to the same scrutiny as all city functions, and no longer treated as budget “sacred cows.”

We are aware that elected officials make valiant efforts to take the public’s pulse, but their efforts are sometimes flawed and distort their conclusions. They presume to know which spokespeople represent broad constituencies, which “hot button” issues are the city’s top priorities, and which powerful groups cannot be crossed without public backlash. Political taboos can survive long after the public is ready to challenge basic assumptions. Unable to convince politicians that San Franciscans cared about children, Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth had to actually go to the ballot in 1991 with the Children’s Amendment in order to make the case and finally get the attention of the political establishment.

Rarely do policymakers have the opportunity to view objective data about the overall priorities of the voters – data that compares all issues and reflects a diverse and statistically valid cross-section of the city. The results of the January Binder poll provide that opportunity, and deserve the attention and consideration of those empowered to make decisions on all our behalf. Elected officials have an obligation to base their policy and budget decisions on the priorities of the people for whom the policy is being made.

Advocates for children, youth and their families will rally in Civic Center on April 15 at 11am, to urge elected officials and policymakers to pay attention to the voice of the community, and to prioritize children in the city budget.

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