Californians are bummed out.

The Golden State’s residents rated their quality of life at its lowest mark in almost 20 years, citing the economic downturn and stagnant personal finances, according to a joint UC Berkeley and Field Poll.

“Residents are reconsidering the image of the Golden State and showing more ambivalence toward it,” said Jack Citrin, a Berkeley political science professor who co-wrote the report. “The changes going on – socially, culturally, economic – have made people here less Pollyannaish about the reality of life here.”

The poll, based on a telephone survey of 898 registered voters in February, showed that only 39 percent considered the state “one of the best places to live,” compared with the glory days of 1985, when 78 percent gave the state the highest rating.

Californians’ self-assessment has gradually declined since then, with occasional spurts of optimism, until the appraisal rock-bottomed in 1992 at the tail end of a national recession.

Jon Christensen, the executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, said while the poll reflected personal financial woes. Californians are also bothered by a dysfunctional state government mired in a budget crisis.

“The state’s dysfunction as a whole feeds into this worry that this is far from one of the best places to live,” Christensen said. “One would think that a criterion for someone to say, ‘This is one of the best places to live,’ is that it’s well governed.”

At risk is the concept of California – land of world-class universities, beautiful open landscapes, perpetual job growth, and opportunities for immigrants, Christensen said.

“I say this in a positive way: When the myth of California gets questioned, when all of those things become disconnected, people begin to consider the reality,” he said. “This is a wake-up call to fix all of those things.”

The report also asked residents whether immigration had an impact on their quality of life.  Most voters – 47 percent – said immigration had no real impact.  Yet of those who said immigration had changed California, 39 percent said it lowered their quality of life, while 10 percent said immigration made life here better.

Brian Peterson, 45, a landscape gardener in Yreka (Siskiyou County), said that if he had been polled, he would have answered Option B, “California is a nice but not outstanding place to live.”

In the past 20 years, Peterson said his community near the Oregon border has lost jobs in the timber and mining industries because of more stringent state regulations and pressure from environmentalists.

“The location is excellent,” Peterson said. “I love my local community. But the state politics suck. It comes from either Sacramento or Washington, D.C., and they don’t know what’s best for us up here.”

Peterson said illegal immigration – as opposed to legal immigration – has negatively impacted the state’s quality of life. That’s part of the reason he’s the unofficial spokesman for the State of Jefferson, a group of secessionists who would like to see Northern California counties create their own state.

“Our county is rural, poor, but big,” Peterson said. “If we could make decisions on our local laws and business rules that work for us – then our quality of life would increase.”

Hundreds of miles away at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, surfer Mark Massara, a lifelong Californian, said he would have voted that California is still among the best places to live.

Massara, who’s a general counsel attorney for O’Neill Wetsuits, said the downed economy, ironically, had a positive impact on the shorelines. “The worse the economy is, the better off the coast is because people don’t have as much money to think up dumb development ideas,” he said.

Massara said the growth of California during his lifetime has presented challenges, but in his experience, it’s all been relative.

“There’s more people now, more congestion, development, more everything,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that you could allow to reduce your so-called quality of life. The flip side is, the older you get, you tend to appreciate what’s left. I can be at any beach in California, no matter how crowded or polluted, and still be stoked.”

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