Less for many: ‘Opportunity gap’, income disparity, poverty grows in Orange County
Orange County poverty is growing dramatically, along with income inequality, homelessness and overcrowded housing, according to a comprehensive survey by government agencies and charitable organizations. The annual Orange County Community Indicators report, released this week, lays out in 52 pages of stark detail the worsening plight of a growing portion of local families. The result: an “opportunity gap,” seen in “abundant supports and resources for the children of higher-income families and stalled or declining social mobility for the children of lower-income and less educated families,” the report says.
To be sure, an improving economy has led to lower unemployment and, especially, more high-paying jobs for the well-educated, the survey notes. However, a dire housing shortage for the middle class and the poor is spurring an exodus of wage earners that threatens the county’s long-term economic health. “The fewer people of working age, the fewer there are to sustain schools, pensions and other supports to the youngest and oldest members of a population,” the report warns. It notes that people over 65 constitute the only age group in the county whose proportion of the population will grow in the next 25 years. “The image on TV is that everybody in Orange County is wealthy and has a great quality of life,” said Fred Smoller, a Chapman University political science professor.
“This report punctures the myth. We have a two-tiered economy, with more and more wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer families.”
The county’s median income, adjusted for inflation, dropped 6 percent to $74,163 from 2006 to 2013. Wages for lower-paid occupations such as administrative assistants and retail sales clerks declined, and salaries for such higher-paid jobs as computer programmers rose, the survey shows.
Educational disparity is a key concern for businesses, the report notes.
The proportion of Latinos in Orange County will grow to 41 percent by 2040, yet the academic gap between Latino students and their classmates “remains substantial and persistent, showing little lasting improvement,” the report said.
One out of 10 Latinos drops out of high school, and of those who remain, only a third are eligible to enroll in a University of California or California State University school.
“If our local graduates are inadequately educated and trained or mismatched for jobs in key Orange County industries, employers will have to import skilled workers or positions will go unfilled for longer periods of time, impacting productivity,” the report said.
The survey was commissioned by two public agencies – the Children & Families Commission of Orange County and CalOptima, which manages health care for the poor – along with two private charities, Orange County United Way and Orange County Community Foundation.
It draws on U.S. Census Bureau data and other federal, state and academic studies, as well as research by the Orange County Business Council and other local groups.
The survey focused on several key areas.
By federal criteria, Orange County’s poverty rate has risen to 13.5 percent of residents from 8.8 percent in the past nine years. For a family of four, that means an annual income below $24,000.
But Orange County’s cost of living is 46 percent higher than the national average.
The more focused California Poverty Measure, which accounts for a range of local factors, including housing prices, pegs Orange County’s poverty rate at 24.3 percent.
Children suffer the most. A third of Orange County youths under 12 live in poverty – a higher proportion than in the surrounding counties of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego.
Anaheim, home to Disneyland, the county’s largest employer, along with nearby Stanton, have the highest concentration of poverty-plagued neighborhoods, followed by La Habra, Santa Ana and Westminster.
“Personally, I love the fact that Los Angeles is raising the minimum wage,” said United Way President and CEO Max Gardner. “I would like to see that happen in Orange County.”
Gardner noted the report’s finding that a worker making California’s $9 hourly minimum wage would have to work 110 hours a week to afford a typical one-bedroom Orange County apartment, which rents for $1,238 a month.
However, although Los Angeles and several other California cities are raising their minimum wages to $15 an hour over the next few years, Orange County officials, citing the burden on businesses, have shown no inclination to do likewise.
In May, Irvine repealed its 7-year-old “living wage” law – the county’s only such ordinance – which required city employees and contractors to be paid at least $10.82 an hour, or $13.43 if their companies offered no health insurance.
For would-be homeowners, prospects have improved since the housing bubble. By 2014, 44 percent of households could afford an entry-level home, up from 24 percent in 2006.
However, Orange County continues to face a dire housing shortage. From 2006 to 2014, builders supplied only 40 percent of the new housing needed for all income levels and only 10 percent of needed low-income units. That pace has picked up in the past year.
The shortage-driven high cost of housing, 142 percent above the national average, “will deter recent graduates, young entrepreneurs, and talented workers from staying and encourage them to relocate to more affordable counties and states,” the report warns.
Moreover, the failure to build affordable housing has led to a dramatic rise in the number of families that are doubling up and tripling up in apartments as well as a spike in homeless and poorly housed children. Partly because of federal budget cuts, more than 100,000 Orange County households are on waiting lists for rental assistance.
Steve PonTell, president and CEO of National Community Renaissance, which builds affordable housing, said Orange County cities are blocking projects because of “NIMBYism slash selfishness. It’s: I got mine and I don’t want ‘those people’ living in my neighborhood.”
Cities get more sales tax from new retail centers, he said, and politicians see new housing as requiring expensive services. “It’s irresponsible,” he said. “Do they want a county where their grandchildren cannot afford to live?”
Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council, criticized the Huntington Beach City Council’s recent vote to block the construction of 2,400 apartments at a previously approved project near Bella Terra. “We are not providing for the next generation,” she said.
Dunn’s organization has endorsed a California bill to raise more than $300 million for affordable housing statewide by hiking the filing fee for some real estate documents to $75 from $18. The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted in May to oppose the bill.
“This isn’t just an issue for the poor,” Dunn said. “Imagine if one-third of the workforce at Mission Hospital in south O.C. doesn’t live in O.C. Then you have an earthquake and the staff can’t get there to triage people.”
Orange County’s high school dropout rate of 6.4 percent is lower than the state’s 11.6 percent rate, and the percentage of students eligible for UC and CSU admission is rising.
But the overall statistics mask vast racial, ethnic and geographic gulfs. In Laguna Beach Unified School District, 72 percent of students are eligible to attend UC and CSU schools, compared with 39 percent in Anaheim Unified.
Less than half of low-income students are proficient in English, a fact that “is concerning for employers who increasingly demand so-called ‘soft skills,’ which include the ability to communicate effectively in writing and speech,” the report notes.
In line with national trends, a third of Orange County children are overweight or obese, and in low-income cities, as many as half of the children are.
Diabetes and heart disease, two obesity-related diseases, are on the rise, “a trend that is likely to continue if we don’t find ways to reduce childhood obesity,” the report warns.
Mental health is a growing concern. Hospitalization for major depression among children has jumped 28 percent since 2003. Deaths from drug abuse, suicide and alcohol-related liver disease are on the rise.
“Despite increasing need,” the report noted, “Orange County has a ratio of 804 residents per mental health care provider, compared to the statewide average of 623 residents.”
Whether on poverty, housing, education or health, the goal of the report is to spur action to “make the community stronger for all of us,” said Gardner, the United Way CEO. “Some of these issues can’t be solved by charity. We need the leadership of elected officials.”