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Testing Our 2020 Vision

As we enter 2001, the new year in Orange County looks good despite some economic uncertainty nationally. Unemployment is at an all-time low, the job market has risen to record levels and the county’s median family income will keep growing, forecasters predict. So far, so good. But what about 2010? And 2020?

Too far ahead to look? Not really. The future has a way of sneaking up on us. We look around and 10 or 20 years have gone by and as a community, we’re surprised, and frustrated, to find that we haven’t done much to be ready for it. We need that 2020 vision.

Wisely, some people are raising their sights. A report, “Community Assessment Phase II, Health and Human Services in Orange County,” looking into the changes that coming years will bring, was prepared by the Academic Resources Team of the Orange County Assessment Collaborative. The team is made up of researchers from Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine, Chapman University, Saddleback College, Infolink Orange County and the county United Way agency.

The report can help serve as a road map for public and community service agencies to assess the future and gear up to take on the challenges. It also should be a wake-up call for residents, public officials and private businesses.

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The report’s look into the future sees an aging population as the baby boomers begin entering their senior years.

Today, about 392,000 of the county’s 2.8 million residents are 60 years of age or older. By 2010, the over-60 population is expected to increase by 36%. The report notes that more data are needed to determine specific characteristics, but its plain to see that the projected dramatic increase in this age group makes it vital to prepare now for the needs of these elders.

The younger population will continue to grow too, primarily in the 10-to-17-year-old group, and mostly in the Latino population as the county becomes even more diverse with none of the county’s four major ethnic groups making up a majority of the population. But by 2020 Latinos will be the largest ethnic population group.

The job market will continue to grow, but so will the number of people living below the poverty level. That could tax the emergency and supportive services to low-income residents, including affordable child care and transportation.

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School enrollment also will continue to rise. And unless there is a sharp turnaround, so will housing costs and the dire shortage of affordable homes. In the last 10 years, the county population has grown more than 17%. But the housing stock grew only 10%. That disparity has helped skyrocket housing costs to an all-time high and available rental units to a record low. Adding the growth in the number of jobs to the mix portends only more housing shortages and higher home costs. This in turn will mean less spendable income left over for other critical needs.

In addition to the dilemma of where more affordable housing will come from, there is the other population-powered problem of how much slower our travel times will be on more-congested, traffic-clogged streets and freeways. And how will the county meet its commercial and cargo air traffic needs?

These aren’t new problems. We have carried most of them with us from decade to decade. So the big question--and challenge--is how prepared will the community be to meet the changing patterns? Will we be able to solve the problems now and retool our school, health, housing, transportation, social and economic institutions? Will we have the courage to make the hard decisions? Or will we continue to allow problems to drift unsolved into 2010 and 2020 for future generations to wrestle with?

The fact that the county Academic Resources Team is looking into the future is a hopeful sign that the community will make a serious commitment to work toward making it better than the present, or the past. But while identifying needs brings issues into focus, addressing them will test the community’s will.


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