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The Faces of Diversity: Melting Pot Or Great Divide?

By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California, and Cheryl Katz, a private consultant specializing in public opinion research

This opinion article appeared in OC Metro in the February 6, 2003 issue

Orange County begins the New Year in relatively good shape. Despite a nation and state still mired in an economic slowdown, residents are in a confident and upbeat mood about the local scene, according to the latest Orange County survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in collaboration with UC Irvine. The public's perception that the county's economy is in positive territory is consistent with the expert forecasts offered at Chapman University at the end of 2002, which indicate there should be growth in local employment, personal incomes and retail sales this year.

Orange County residents also give high marks to their quality of life. Today, people's ratings of their housing, neighborhoods, schools, roads, and parks are remarkably similar to what we reported 20 years ago when the county had 1 million fewer residents. While people certainly notice the problems brought about by population growth - such as traffic congestion, environmental pollution and high housing costs - PPIC statewide surveys last fall found that Angelenos and Bay Area residents were much more likely than Orange County residents to complain about regional conditions.

But while county residents remain content with the way life balances here in the near term, serious questions loom about how long these trends will hold up. In our recent survey, nearly as many residents told us this will be a worse place to live in the future as said it would be a better place to live. While accommodating new population growth is a key ingredient to a better future, Orange County faces an even greater challenge because of its growing demographic diversity.

Ethnic Shift
A major racial and ethnic shift is now transforming Orange County's population, fueled by two decades of immigration from Mexico and Asia and higher birth rates among the foreign born. Twenty years ago, more than 3 in 4 three county residents were non-Latino whites. Today, whites make up barely half of the county's population. In just a few years, Orange County will become a "majority-minority" region where no single ethnic or racial group makes up more than 50 percent of the population. And with the particularly rapid increase in one sector, this has become the Latino century - of both promise and challenge.

What accounts for the rapid change in population? Largely, it is the growing numbers of Latinos; Asians and African Americans account for a small share of the nonwhite population.

Here are the key statistics: In 1980, 1 in 6 county residents was Latino. Today, that number is almost 1 in 3.

Clearly, the county is in the midst of change rather than at an end point in the demographic transition. The California Department of Finance predicts that the number of Latinos and whites in Orange County will be virtually tied less than two decades from now. Latinos will be the largest ethnic group by 2030.

This dramatic racial and ethnic population shift will be a powerful force in shaping the future of Orange County. But the balance is unequal. Today, there are glaring inequalities in housing, income, jobs and the education levels attained by whites and Latinos. Whether the future is one of equality and opportunity for all residents, or one marked by stark disparities between the "haves" and the "have-nots" depends on how Orange County handles the transition.

Equal Or Separate?
Overall, the picture today is one of an educated and affluent population with ample opportunities to get ahead. This helps explain the glowing reports about the economy and quality of life. But beneath the surface of these numbers is a large economic divide, and due to the fast-growing Latino group having much lower education and affluence, the future good life is in jeopardy.

While nearly half of Orange County's white residents say they have more than enough household income to pay their bills, only 22 percent of Latinos are in the same financial shape. Nearly 1 in 4 Orange County Latino families say they don't have enough to make ends meet. While most people worry about money at least sometimes, Latinos are much more likely than whites to say they worry very often.

The county's job market also appears much more precarious for Latinos, who are twice as likely as whites to be concerned that they or someone in their family will lose a job in the coming year. In fact, just under half of Latinos say they are very or somewhat concerned about a job loss affecting their family in the near future. By comparison, fewer than 1 in 4 whites expect to feel the personal sting of job losses.

Perhaps most telling is the difference in self-perception between Orange County Latino and white residents. While 3 in 4 whites consider themselves to be among the HAVES - those with education, nice homes, well-paying jobs and ample creature comforts - more than half of Latinos see themselves as HAVE NOTS - on the outside looking in.

By Income and Home
The numbers bear this out. Some 60 percent of Latino families have household incomes below $40,000 a year, according to our recent survey, compared to only 25 percent of whites. More than 40 percent of white households earn more than $80,000 a year. Among Latinos, only 1 in 7 earn this amount. Perhaps most dramatically, 60 percent of Latinos have only a high school education or less, and only 1 in 6 have a college degree. Among whites in Orange County, more than half are college graduates.

The schism also can be seen in the county's social arenas. Whites and Latinos tend to be geographically separated, with nearly 9 in 10 Latinos living in North County - particularly in the older cities such as Anaheim, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Orange. In South County, the new suburban cities are mostly white.

Orange County's beautiful homes and neighborhoods appear to be out of reach for many Latinos, of whom only 37 percent own their home, compared to 70 percent of whites. Only half of Latinos are highly satisfied with the house or apartment they live in, compared to 7 in 10 whites. Similarly, only about half of Latinos are highly satisfied with the neighborhood they live in, while nearly 3 in 4 whites say they are very happy with where they live.

The separate realities faced by Orange County's whites and Latinos are especially vivid in assessments of the county's most important problem. According to white residents, the top issue facing the county today is population growth and development - mentioned by 25 percent - followed rather distantly by traffic (17 percent) and housing (12 percent). No other issues were mentioned by more than 1 in 10 white residents. The picture is quite a different one for Latinos, among whom jobs and the economy are tied with traffic as the most important problem (13 percent each), with crime and gangs a close second (12 percent) and housing third (10 percent).

Growth and development are barely on the radar screen as an issue among Latinos, just as crime and jobs barely register as problems for whites. This perception also pervades assessments of the region, with Latinos much more likely than whites to say that a lack of well-paying jobs is a big problem in their region (34 percent to 15 percent), while whites are considerably more concerned about growth and development (38 percent to 27 percent).

And though ratings of local public services are high among all groups in Orange County, whites are more likely than Latinos to rate their police protection and parks and recreational facilities as excellent or good, while Latinos are more likely than whites to rate their local public schools in a positive fashion.

Embracing Each Other
Reconciling these separate realities for Orange County's two largest ethnic groups presents a momentous challenge, with crucial implications for the future. Today's economic and social disparities between the white haves and Latino have nots warn of a future marked by a great divide, in which a majority of residents are prevented from sharing in the county's prosperity.

Political participation is an important component in seeking public policy solutions to narrowing the gap in social and economic inequalities. For instance, voting and representation helped pave the way for solid gains made by European immigrants a century ago. Indeed, elected leaders pay an increasing amount of attention to their growing Latino constituency. Orange County has numerous Latinos in political office, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido.

But Latinos have not participated in the political process as fully as they could be. According to our recent surveys, only about half of Orange County's Latino adults are registered to vote, compared to nearly 9 in 10 whites. Latino voting today is limited by many factors, such as lower citizenship rates, a more youthful population, and lower incomes, education and homeownership rates than whites. Participation among Latinos must be increased to ensure that their voices get heard in the political process, especially since many depend on public health and social service programs.

The Road Ahead
Despite the threat of a future sharply divided along racial and economic lines, positive signs could point the way to a county becoming one of the state's premier melting pots. Residents are generally favorable toward the county's growing diversity, with most saying the increasing numbers of people from different racial and ethnic groups either makes Orange County a better place to live (38 percent), or makes no difference either way (47 percent).

And the groups appear to be mixing socially. Some 70 percent say they very often come in contact with people from different racial groups during the course of their everyday lives, and another 14 percent do so fairly often. Moreover, 8 in 10 say they would have no problem with a member of their family marrying a person from a different racial group. Significantly, views on racial issues and the merits of increasing diversity are remarkably similar locally among Latinos, whites and Asians.

Another positive sign is the upbeat attitudes among Latino residents, with 4 in 10 expecting the county to be a better place in the future. More than half believe their personal finances are on the upswing and anticipate being even better off next year than today. And Latinos can bring a needed surge of optimism to the county's political outlook with a greater confidence in the government and trust in their leaders. For instance, a majority of Latinos rate county government as doing an excellent job in solving problems in Orange County, a view shared by fewer than 4 in 10 whites.

What will keep that optimism going? How can Orange County steer itself toward a future of diversity with equality, rather than diversity with inequality? Improving conditions for Latinos today is a key element. In an area like Orange County, marked by affluence and a high cost of living, higher incomes are crucial. And the way to higher incomes is education. The education and skill levels of Orange County's fastest-growing group must be raised to allow them to compete for high-paying jobs. With the state's current fiscal crisis threatening the public school system from kindergarten through college, this goal is far from certain. It will require the dedication and resolve of the local private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Also, help from the county's "haves" will be needed - in the form of volunteering and donations- since government assistance is likely to fall short of what it will take for the "have-nots" to make major strides in a generation.

We must resolve to take steps now to pave the way for all groups-Anglos, Latinos, Asians, African Americans, Iranians and others from the Middle East and South Asia-to participate fully in the good life. Otherwise, growing inequality poses a serious threat to Orange County's future.

If current patterns hold, and Latinos remain at the bottom rung of the income and education ladders, the county's economic outlook could be dim. Without education, jobs and political participation for its fastest-growing group of residents, the gap between the wealthy and the poor will develop into a great divide, jeopardizing the quality of life that all Orange County residents cherish.


Statewide Survey: Special Survey of Orange County - December 2002

Statewide Survey: Special Survey on Orange County - September 2001

When Government Fails: The Orange County Bankruptcy