Study Illustrates Profound Quality-of-Life Disparities Across California

 

If you think things are bad in California, then you probably don’t live in Silicon Valley. And if you think things are swell, you probably don’t live in Kerman (or in the Schwarzenegger household). That’s the conclusion of a new report released this month about the state of human well-being in California. 

The American Human Development Project, a series of studies in all 50 states, is part of a growing movement to measure development not only in terms of economic prosperity but also in terms of quality of life and—to the horror of 1950s-era quantitative analysts—happiness. It’s in the Declaration of Independence, so I suppose it’s about time we paid attention to it.  Authored by Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, A Portrait of California uses methodology for assessing well-being that has been developed by the United Nations. It synthesizes measure of health, education, and income into a single index, ranging from 0 to 10. 

A Portrait of California is an expansive study that boils the state down to one little number. With a statewide score of 5.46, California ranks above the national average of 5.09. However, the study revealed that California also has the greatest range of scores among all the states surveyed. With nearly perfect scores, five of California’s congressional districts rank in the national top-10.

Meanwhile, Mississippi, Flint, and the Bronx have nothing on the Central Valley. Congressional District 20, near Fresno, ranks at the very bottom nationwide. Average incomes range from $73,000 in parts of Silicon Valley to $15,000 in parts of the City of Los Angeles. Broadly, the Bay Area is by far the most prosperous metro region, with an index just under 7; no other metro breaks 6 as San Diego, Sacramento, and Los Angeles—the other “big four” metros--were measured at 5.65, 5.48, and 5.28, respectively. The San Joaquin Valley measures 3.84. 

Variations within metros were, predictably, even more pronounced. In the Los Angeles area, a 7-point gap separates the mostly white residents of Laguna Hills from the mostly African-American residents of Watts. You can guess which placed ranked higher. 

Similar disparities cross ethnic lines. Asian-Americans rank 7.61, with nearly twice as much well-being (as it were) as Latinos, whose index is 3.99. Slice the data however you want—gender, location, education, immigrant status, ethnicity—and predictable patterns persist. 

The study concludes that, contrary to what planners may think about cities, on the one hand, and metro regions, on the other hand, there are five “Californias”: Silicon Valley Shangri-La, Metro-Coastal Enclave, Main Street, Struggling, and Forsaken. Each of these states corresponds with varying access to quality education and shocking disparities in quality of neighborhoods and social services. The study lists the exact cities and communities that fall into each California, so everyone in the state can find his or her place in the inequitable mess that the state has become. 

Any planner with a conscience should pay attention to the development factors that relate to land use, of which there are many. For instance, the study points out that residents of Palo Alto get around via three public bus systems plus a commuter rail line, thus fulfilling the contentions of everyone from Jane Jacobs to Ed Glaeser that connectivity equals prosperity. Just a stone's throw from Steve Jobs' house, East Palo Alto is served by a single public bus system. Shangri-La it is not. 

The study concludes by identifying 12 categories of action that are required to bring the respective Californias up to a level of respectability. Not surprisingly, the Forsaken California requires all 12 fixes; Silicon Valley needs only to reduce the gender gap in earnings (presumably, though, women tech executives who make $10 million compared to men who make $20 million are fighting more of a moral battle than a financial battle). 

The categories, numbered below as they appear in the report, that should concern planners include the following: 

4. Reduce residential segregation. With astounding disparities in amenities, services, and social capital among the Californias—and with some of them sitting cheek by jowl—the study implies that the stakes in the battle for affordable housing are higher than merely having a place to live.

5.  Facilitate healthy behaviors. This is nothing new. Walking and cycling should be easy, not marginalized in favor of the auto. 

11. Stabilize housing costs. As far as I’m concerned, this means relaxing zoning laws, speeding up the entitlement process, and otherwise getting rid of many artificial barriers to the production of privately developed housing. (Harvard professor Ed Glaeser says nothing less in Triumph of the City (see CP&DR Book Beview May 2011.) Aside from those, a full four categories of action relate directly to education. 

None of this data is news to anyone who lives in these different Californias. But the report does offer a striking holistic portrait of the state as a whole: planners and public officials who read the report – however valid or invalid its conclusions might be – cannot ignore how the other half lives. This sort of analysis, especially at the level of the metro region, would be nearly useless if it weren’t for the dawning of a new age of regionalism in California. SB 375 intends to reduce vehicle miles traveled on the regional scale, but in directing transportation investment, development, and especially housing development, SB 375 has the chance to promote equity. And that’s something that many will consider more important than VMT reduction. 

 

--Josh Stephens