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Social Splits Portend Trouble

One of the most significant discoveries to come out of the fourth annual Orange County Survey released last Tuesday is that affluent, urban Orange County is a segregated community. It is segregated by income, housing--and attitudes. The segregation may be de facto. But it is real. Clearly defined. And it will most certainly continue to grow.

The south county, defined as the area south of the 55 Freeway from Newport Beach to San Clemente, has the highest median income ($43,000 per year) in the county. The central area, which includes Santa Ana, Tustin, Costa Mesa and Garden Grove, has the lowest ($32,000) of any section of the county. The central county also has the most overcrowded homes while the south has the least.

“It’s very much a case between the haves and have-nots. It’s also a case of racial and cultural segregation” said Mark Baldassare, the survey director, who is an associate professor of social ecology at UC Irvine. The division could lead to problems.

By concentrating low-income racially mixed neighborhoods in the central area and white, upper-middle-class residents in the south, the segregation by race, income and housing size must inevitably produce different attitudes and political goals. That will make it harder to get countywide agreement on issues. That has already become evident in several instances on the county and state level. And development plans will only perpetuate the imbalance. More low-income housing in the south county could help offset it and add to the diversity of the community.

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The disappointing aspect of urban problems, such as housing costs and traffic congestion, is that Orange County, when the boom years started back in the 50s, had a determined “I’ll do it my way” attitude. It wanted to grow. And it has. But it didn’t want to grow like the other urban areas. It wanted to avoid their mistakes and be different. Better.

It seems to have missed the mark.

The annual survey shows that Orange County hasn’t escaped the pitfalls it sought to avoid. It is economically ahead of most other areas in the nation. The county’s median income is $39,000, up 70% since 1980, and well ahead of the $22,000 national average. It is also five years ahead of the rest of the country in terms of economic status and living conditions, according to Baldassare.

But its freeways are congested. And, as the survey has noted, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the traffic problem. In one year the number of residents satisfied with freeways decreased 7%. Today about five out of every six people are unhappy with traffic conditions on the county’s freeways.

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The survey also found more crowded households with fewer people living alone. That’s because of the higher housing costs and shortage of apartments. The greatest need in the county is for rental units, but the supply has not kept up with the market demand. The result has been a dramatic increase in the median rent. In 1980 it was $336 per month. Now it’s $578. That increase has created the strange situation that finds today’s median rent higher than the median mortgage payment of $542.

Residents also show a strange split personality in their attitudes on community issues and public policy. The majority are “very concerned” about countywide affairs, more so than state issues. But their interest in resolving transportation and social problems stop at their pocketbook. According to survey findings, residents recognize the problems and the need for funding, but they don’t want to pay for it themselves. They say they distrust government, but they’re willing to let government solve the problems.

Residents, in general, want to keep the status quo. They like the county’s healthy economic growth. And they generally believe that Orange County will be a better place to live in the future.

That’s an understandable hope. But if it’s to become anything more than wishful thinking, Orange County residents will have to shed some of their unwillingness to take a greater responsibility in solving the urban problems past growth has created and begin realizing that the county is like a lifeboat. If the central area is sinking, the south end is in danger, too.

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