Orange County Less Suburban, More L.A.


A decade of immigration and dwindling middle-class jobs shredded the divide separating Orange County--once the epitome of white middle-class suburbia--from Los Angeles County, its urban, multiethnic neighbor to the north, newly released census figures show.

During the ‘90s, Orange County underwent a shift in economics, language and education, with increases in the number of wealthy, educated citizens and in the ranks of poor, low-educated immigrants.

“Orange County is now sharing the same benefits and challenges as L.A. County has, in becoming a destination of new immigrants in the 1990s,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center and the Milken Institute in Santa Monica. “Part of the challenge is the growth at both ends of the ‘barbell’ economy in terms of skill sets, occupations and incomes.”

More broadly, the growing diversity of the region signals “the popping of the Orange County stereotype as the bastion of white flight,” said Scott Bollens, chair of the department of urban and regional planning in UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology.


The changes can be heard as well as seen: More than a million of the county’s 2.8 million residents--41.4%--now speak a language other than English at home, a radical shift underscoring a fast-evolving demographic profile.

In this and other ways, the census shows that Orange County has lost the insularity that once defined it and separated it from Los Angeles County, where the number of people speaking a language other than English at home reached 54% in 2000.

The Orange County census figures also sharply define the class split between the older northern cities, where the less affluent are concentrated, and the newer suburban areas of south Orange County, where the upper middle class and the wealthy have flocked.

“The Orange Curtain is now within Orange County, instead of separating Orange County from Los Angeles,” Bollens said.

The county’s changing face is detailed in new census data gleaned from long forms filled out by more than 130,000 of Orange County’s 935,000 households during the 2000 census.

The demographic changes underscore the tasks facing educators and economic developers.

“One of the challenges is: How do we create a diverse community and have affordable housing and everything else for everyone who wants to live and work here?” said William M. Habermehl, county superintendent of education.

The changes show the county “is not the suburbia it used to be,” Frey said.


“What you see in the economic and education data suggests the same kind of divisions in this suburban county that we used to see only in big, urban cities,” he said.

Those divisions fell largely along development lines. Newer--and more expensive--areas of the county tended to be home to the wealthier and better-educated, and low-income and less-educated families poured into older neighborhoods in the county’s core cities of Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove and Stanton.

“This ... creates the fear that we’re becoming two counties, one rich and one poor,” said Stan Oftelie, president of the Orange County Business Council.

The divide is felt in myriad ways.


“People here don’t think of themselves as being a part of Orange County,” said Dee Higby, 56, at the end of a round of golf at Tustin Ranch Golf Club.

“They think of themselves as living in Newport Beach, or living in Santa Ana. The county is balkanized.”

Higby, who lives in a 3,200-square-foot, four-bedroom home on Newport Beach’s Lido Isle, sees the divide as economic rather than racial--and porous for those with the drive to succeed.

The division in education is striking. In Santa Ana, for instance, 56.8% of the population over age 25 had not graduated high school, up from 50.3% in 1990.


The rate of educational deterioration was greater in Tustin, where 51.8% lacked high school diplomas, up 25% from 10 years before. In Stanton and Garden Grove, about one in three adults over age 25 didn’t have one, up about 7%.

Yet three of four adults in Newport Coast had college degrees, as did more than half the adults in Irvine, Las Flores, Villa Park, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Coto de Caza.

The demographic changes swept most prominently over Tustin, a former farm town in central Orange County consumed by suburban sprawl in the ‘80s and a flow of immigration in the ‘90s.

There, people speaking a language other than English in the home nearly doubled, from 27.8% in 1990 to 46.6% in 2000. Over the same span, the number of foreign-born residents increased from 21.6% of the population to 33.3%.


“With that many languages spoken, it creates a tremendous set of challenges for K-12 education, trying to accommodate the primary language spoken at home, while at the same time teaching English,” Bollens said.

Countywide, median family income dropped from $66,755 to $64,611, and even the well-to-do say their wealth is largely on paper.

Eric Rubery, 34, a city planning consultant, and his wife, Stephanie, an Irvine city planner, earn about $135,000 a year. Statistically, they are in Orange County’s upper middle class, and they live in a 1,600-square-foot condo in Aliso Viejo.

“By federal standards, we’re incredibly rich,” he said. “With the cost of living in Orange County, we don’t feel particularly rich.”


With the continuing erosion of the middle class, he said, the county’s political and social pressures will increase.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if down the road there’s an attempt to break off one section of the county from the other along the lines of the secession movement in L.A.,” he said.

Times staff writers Mike Anton and Milton Carrero Galarza contributed to this report.