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State ranks high for 'well-being,' but local results vary

American Human Development Project

A Newport Beach resident can expect to live 88.1 years. Less than 40 miles north in Watts, life expectancy drops to 72.8 years – the lowest in California.

Other divisions are also striking: Median income falls by nearly $33,000 between the two cities, and educational attainment plummets.

Those are among the indicators of well-being measured by the American Human Development Index, released today. As a whole, California ranks 12th in the nation, at 5.46 on a scale of zero to 10. But well-being varies widely across the state, with Silicon Valley communities registering as high as 9.35 and those in South Los Angeles as low as 1.91.

Developed by the American Human Development Project, the index is based on similar work by the United Nations that offers an alternative to gross domestic product for measuring people's welfare and progress.

The index synthesizes recent census and public health data on health, education and income into one number for California and 233 communities within it. It also explores disparities between men and women, by nativity and among different racial and ethnic groups. 

The top of the index shows where people have the highest life expectancy, highest levels of education and highest earnings; the bottom is where all those determinants of well-being are lowest.

"Silicon Valley, that area is where the country is going to be as a whole in the 2060s if current trends continue," said Kristen Lewis, co-author of the report and co-director of the project. "The group at the bottom – Vernon, Watts – that's where the country was as a whole in the 1960s. A whole century of human development progress separates the top and the bottom."

'Five Californias'

California as a whole ranks higher in human development than the nation does. Since 1990, life expectancy in the state has improved by four years to 80.1; the percentage of residents with at least a bachelor's degree has climbed from 23.4 percent to 29.9 percent. But over the decade, median earnings slipped from $31,062 to $29,685.

While well-being in-state is still higher than it is nationwide, California's lead is narrowing, Lewis said. The state has jumped 0.82 points on the index since 1990, whereas the United States overall, at 5.09 in 2009, has improved 1.27 points.

Within California is the greatest range of index scores of any state.

The Bay Area, scoring 6.8, is home to some of the highest levels of health, education and income in the country. If the region were a state, it would surpass Connecticut's 6.3 for highest in the nation. The San Joaquin Valley, on the other hand, would come in last if it were a state at 3.84, just behind West Virginia's 3.85.

Other regions in the state fall somewhere in between: San Diego and the southern border at 5.65, greater Sacramento at 5.48, Southern California at 5.28, the Central Coast at 4.82, Coastal Sierra at 4.67 and Northern California at 4.26.

The report – funded in part by the California Endowment, a financial supporter of California Watch – also sorts neighborhoods and county groups into "Five Californias" based on their index rankings:

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  • Extremely well-educated entrepreneurs and professionals live in Silicon Valley Shangri-La, accounting for 1 percent of the state's population. Index rating: 9.35
  • Affluent workers inhabit Metro-Coastal Enclave California, which encompasses 18 percent of the population. Index rating: 7.92
  • In Main Street California, "middle class" suburban and exurban residents have longer lives, more education and higher earnings than the typical American, but the security of this population – 38 percent of the state – is increasingly at risk. Index rating: 5.91
  • Another 38 percent of the state – blue- and pink-collar workers facing chronic economic insecurity – live in Struggling California. Index rating: 4.17
  • Impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley comprise The Forsaken Five Percent. Index rating: 2.59

"A lot of the challenges that affect people that are really struggling are also affecting middle class Californians," Lewis said. "Seventy-five, 80 percent of California really have a common set of problems that require common solutions that will improve the lives of everybody."

Well-being in California varies not just by place but by race and ethnicity and sex as well. Asian American women, for example, have the highest life expectancy of any racial or gender group in the state at 88.6 years; African American men have the lowest at 70.2 years.

Throughout the state, Asian Americans tend to enjoy the highest levels of well-being, followed by whites, African Americans and Latinos, according to the report.

Closing the gaps

The report proposes 12 priorities actions for the state to boost well-being. In Silicon Valley Shangri-La, for example, authors have recommended reducing the gender gap in earnings. Women there early 49 cents for every $1 men earn – a larger disparity than for women in lower-income areas.

"It's less that women are earning less tan men are earning more," Lewis said. At the bottom of the earnings scale, women earn 77 cents to every $1 men earn.

But in The Forsaken Five Percent, the report recommends all 12 priority actions – from improving educational equity and facilitating healthy behaviors to reducing residential segregation and stabilizing housing costs.

Mindful of California's cash-strapped coffers, the report calls on the state to adopt three cost-cutting measures: reform governance, address demographic change and invest in prevention.

The proliferation of ballot initiatives and California's supermajority requirement to pass taxes handicap policymakers and distort the democratic process, Lewis said. The redistricting effort currently underway offers some hope for a more constructive political process, she said.

Significant demographic change is also underway in California. By 2016, Latinos will replace whites as the most populous racial or ethnic group in the state. Before then, nearly one in six Californians will be age 65 or older.

Today's children, Lewis said, will "be the tax base upon which the elderly will depend – and all of California will depend, in a sense. These future adults are today's kids, and more than half of them are Latino kids."

Understanding and addressing the needs of those children, then, are critical to the state's future well-being, she said; a big part of that is prioritizing prevention.

For example, obesity and, as a result, diabetes, will cost Californians nearly $63 billion a year by 2025. From 1990 to 2005, state's prison population grew three times faster than the general population, with a price tag of about $47,000 per prisoner each year, according to the report.

Preventing these problems, Lewis said, requires "investing in the front end – in a better education system and afterschool systems so kids don't end up on the path to jail instead of the path to a productive life, in healthy choices so they don't end up with diabetes as adults. All of this is much less expensive than waiting until the problem has fully blossomed and then trying to solve it."



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