Portrait of California paints picture of disparities

Despite its laid back image, California has long been a state of extremes, in its weather, its culture and its politics. Now a new report shows how the state is divided among rich and poor, educated and not, the healthy and those prone to illness.

The “Portrait of California,” in fact, shows how all of these factors are woven together to produce a patchwork of neighborhoods, counties and regions with disparities that are the equivalent of a century of human development.

On one end of that chasm is the Silicon Valley, where many people are as well off as any on the planet, their standard of living equivalent to what the average American might have in 50 years, if current trends continue. On the other are Fresno and inner city Los Angeles, where conditions are the equivalent of how the average American lived 50 years ago.

The portrait is the work of the American Human Development Project, a foundation-funded effort that adapted principles used by the United Nations and countries around the world to evaluate the wellbeing of their citizens on a scale that goes deeper than the most common economic measure, the gross domestic product.

The problem with that measure, some say, is that it does not reflect how people are actually faring, regardless of the economy’s growth.

“Too often we equate economic growth with human progress,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, a co-founder of the project. “The objective of this project is to question that assumption.”

The Human Development Index measures health, access to education and income, then combines the three into a number that can be placed on a scale between 1 and 10. For health, the index uses life expectancy. For access to education it uses school enrollment and the number of bachelor’s degrees granted. For income the index uses median personal income.

The index makes it possible to compare communities as small as 100,000 as well as counties, regions and entire states. The data can also be sorted by ethnicity, nativity and gender.

A national project ranked each of the 435 congressional districts. While California had several in the top 10, it also had the lowest ranked in the country, a district in and around Fresno.

Overall, California had a score of 5.46 on the index, which was 12th in the nation and higher than the national average of 5,09. That score was helped by the fact that California was ranked third in the nation on the health measure.

The numbers are most valuable for drawing comparisons among nearby places. In Sacramento County, for example, people who live in the city of Folsom are twice as likely to have a bachelor’s degree, earn $15,000 more on average and live three years longer than people a few miles away in South Sacramento.

Using data like that, the Portrait profiles five California demographics that have very different conditions. The authors named them Silicon Valley Shangri-La, Metro-Coastal Enclave California, Main Street California, Struggling California and the Forsaken Five Percent.

To see the full report, click here.

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