Survey Cites Top Issues in County : Transportation, Housing Among Major Concerns

Times Staff Writer

Orange County citizens and community leaders agree that housing and transportation are among their most important problems.

But community leaders rank children’s needs much higher than does the general public. And the public considers educational, environmental and racial problems more important than do county leaders.

These were among the observations and conclusions made in “Orange County Needs Assessment,” a report issued Monday through the United Way of Orange County.

The 18-month, $100,000 study was coordinated by United Way and funded by 19 large corporations and foundations. Half of the funding came from the James Irvine Foundation and the California Community Foundation.


1,008 Polled

Researchers determined a priority list of concerns by polling a sample of 1,008 Orange County residents and interviewing 214 community leaders. They also analyzed about 300 questionnaires from social service organizations and discussed issues with 20 panels representing different segments of the community.

Among other conclusions, the survey found that leaders in government, business and service organizations, while tending “to be much more aware of problems than the general public,” have no consensus “about the public policy agenda for Orange County.”

Aside from housing, there are some marked differences among leadership sectors and across geographic regions.”

Meanwhile, the general public, in apparent disregard of crime statistics, believes crime is on the increase, the survey found.

The results also uncovered large discrepancies in how various groups regard issues.

Disparities Cited

“The fact that there are discrepancies is a finding in itself,” said Mark Baldassare, UC Irvine associate professor of social ecology and a member of the study’s steering committee.


The largest such disparity was that community leaders ranked the needs of children second only to housing problems, while only 9% of the general public considered them a major concern.

Such attitudes show that children are “a lower priority than most parents would like to admit,” the report observed.

The study initially was suggested by Robert Haskell, director of public affairs for Pacific Mutual, a Newport Beach-based insurance firm.

Haskell’s department is in charge of public contributions by Pacific Mutual, and such a study could help determine “the relative importance of issues so we can better target our contributions--what the public considers the real issues,” he explained.


The report will be widely distributed to private and public organizations “to stimulate public awareness and discussion--discussion among leadership,” said Haskell, who chaired the study’s steering committee.

The report combined the responses from the general public and community leaders to produce these consensus rankings:

1. Transportation--"What is clear is that transportation, simply ‘getting from here to there,’ is on many people’s minds in Orange County. . . . Of all the issues suggested in the public opinion survey, transportation was far and away the most frequently mentioned issue,” the report said.

But while 54% of those questioned mentioned it--and nearly one-third of the sample said it was the most important concern--transportation was ranked only sixth in priority for additional funding.


“This suggests that while people tend to acknowledge the seriousness of the county’s transportation problem, they are not necessarily willing to spend more money on it,” the report concluded.

Concern varied according to geographic and economic situation. Those living in southern Orange County were more concerned about transportation than were others. And while elderly and low-income citizens had complaints about public transportation, those who don’t use public transportation generally believe that it is adequate.

2. Housing--Given the 1985 median price of a new house--$140,000--"it is not surprising that housing emerged as one of the most important needs in Orange County,” the report observed.

Since 1980, the typical mortgage payment is up 59%, the typical rent up 72%. Nationwide, 51% of the families can afford to by a median-priced house, but only 37% can afford it in Orange County. If it weren’t for the equity in their houses, 60% of the current Orange County homeowners could not afford to buy the houses they live in now.


Everyone is concerned about housing, but from different perspectives, the report stated. Those who can buy a house are concerned about heavy mortgage payments. Some expressed concern that some people with steady jobs cannot even afford to rent, due to the typical move-in cost of $1,000 or more. Others complained of discrimination based on race or children.

3. Children’s Issues--The report estimated that by 1988 the number of school-age children (6 to 14 years old) will have decreased by 3.9% but that child-care-age children will have increased by almost the same percentage--3.4%.

This trend will aggravate the shortage of child-care facilities in Orange County, a shortage that affects virtually all economic levels. “Even affluent families, where the mother wants to work, find it difficult to locate quality infant care,” the report said.

The report observed that both leaders and the general public believe there are not enough facilities to shelter abused children.


The fact that 65% of community leaders thought children’s needs were a major issue contrasted with 9% of the general public is possibly a reflection of the general attitude about children, the report observed.

“It should be noted,” the report added, “that the majority of households in Orange County are childless, which may affect the perception of children’s needs as a problem.”

4. Drug and Alcohol Abuse--Leaders ranked this issue fourth in importance, while the public ranked it seventh.

“In general, there was a strong sense that drug and alcohol abuse is pervasive and growing, especially among young people (both drugs and alcohol), but also among middle-class and professional people (alcohol and cocaine) and among senior citizens (alcohol and prescription drugs).


“Many educational programs targeted at substance abuse do exist, but the perception persists that the problem is getting worse--perhaps because of adult frustration that the problem appears to be getting worse in spite of good intentions and efforts.” The report estimated that 22% of the county’s approximately 194,000 “problem drinkers” will actually seek treatment, and when they do they will encounter a deficiency of 1,750 beds in private and public detoxification centers.

5. Crime--The general public ranked crime its fourth biggest concern. But there was diversity among regions. In newer, higher-income southern Orange County, it was ranked seventh. In older, lower-income central Orange County, it was ranked third.

“The crime issue surfaced as something people were very concerned about, could not control, threatened the basic community fabric and appeared to be getting worse,” the report stated.

“Senior citizens, women, gays and some minority representatives were the most concerned about crime, although all types of people perceived crime as a serious and growing menace, regardless of the statistics.


“There is a vague sense that most crime is drug-related; that youth gangs are forming in various minority (especially Asian) communities, and that difficult economic circumstances increase certain kinds of crime (e.g., muggings, burglaries, domestic violence), although data suggests no clear correlation.”

6. Education--"Many people viewed education as the core need underlying solutions to all the other problems and needs evaluated,” the report observed.

Community leaders ranked education eighth while the public ranked it third. “But considering the many meanings of the word education, public perceptions are difficult to interpret.”

The report stated that the public generally thought schools are “pretty good, above average” but on the decline. “Available statistics related to this perceived decline are inconclusive,” the report observed.


The report cited many who “felt strongly that minority youth are especially underserved by the public educational system.”

7. Race Relations and Immigration--"There was a sense among many people that race relations were gradually getting worse as the Hispanic, Indochinese and other minority population increased. Some interviewees perceived growing racial problems ‘bubbling just beneath the surface and ready to boil over. . . .’ ”

8. Environment--The report cited professionals’ concern over Orange County “water problem, both quality and quantity.”

“They feel strongly that the public doesn’t understand or does not want to understand the potential seriousness of this problem,” the potential shortage of water during dry years.


Yet when it came to general environmental concerns, the general public ranked them fifth, community leaders 11th.

They were concerned about worsening conditions of hazardous waste and air pollution. “Many people thought that air pollution is getting worse,” despite South Coast Air Quality Management District projections of gradual improvement by year 2000.

9. Jobs--"With unemployment hovering below 5% in 1985 (versus over 7% nationally), the need for jobs in Orange County is not perceived by many people to be a major problem. Eighty-seven percent of the public opinion sample was either ‘very satisfied’ or ‘somewhat satisfied’ with job opportunities,” the report stated.

It added, however, that those who provide social services ranked jobs third in importance, “perhaps reflecting their regular contact with people who need employment.”


“Not surprisingly, minority-group representatives see unemployment, a lack of jobs and a lack of job training as particularly severe problems.”

10. Health Care and the Homeless--These two categories received the same consensus ranking.

The report noted that “community leaders, especially those who are service providers, give health care a much higher priority than the general public,” concluding that “since the average citizen of Orange County has a good job, therefore, access to health insurance and doctors, he or she is perhaps less likely to view health care as a problem.”

When it came to the homeless, “nearly everyone contacted during the research perceived the needs of the homeless people as obviously serious, and their numbers increasing . . .,” the report observed. But there is much variance in estimations of the number of homeless and who is actually without a home.


12. Senior Citizens--People 65 years and older constitute about 10% of the county’s population. Those polled said their problems are receiving more attention but still becoming worse. The problems include inadequate income, housing, health care and nutrition problems, lack of transportation, feelings of isolation and fears for personal safety.

The report cited one estimate that half, or about 115,000, senior citizens need some form of assistance, yet the Area Agency on Aging has funds to serve only 20,000 people.

How Community Leaders Ranked County’s Needs

Need/Issue Mentioned By 1. Housing 67% 2. Children’s Issues 65% 3. Transportation 61% 4. Drugs/Alcohol 59% 5. Crime 43% 6. The Homeless 41% 7. Health Care 38% 8. Education 37% 8. Race Relatons/ 37% Immigration 10. Jobs 36% 11. Environment 31% 11. Senior Citizens 31%


How the Public Ranked County’s Needs

Need/Issue Mentioned By 1. Transportation 54% 2. Housing 29% 3. Education 18% 4. Crime 16% 5. Environment 14% 6. Race Relations/ 12% Immigration 7. Drugs/Alcohol 11% 8. Children’s Issues 9% 9. Jobs 7% 9. Senior Citizens 7% 11. Local Government 6% 12. Health Care 4%