Which California Are You?

This blog post appeared in the Huffington Post on Tuesday, May 17, 2011. You can access the original article here.

California has long been a leader in implementing progressive policies and developing innovative programs to improve the lives and broaden the opportunities of its people. From education to environment, California has been at the forefront. But the Golden State is at risk of losing this edge, disinvesting in the very areas that California needs to compete in the 21st century and to ensure that its people have the tools they need to realize their full potential.

The difficulties facing California are emblematic of challenges facing states across the country in the aftermath of the most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression. In addition, other states will soon grapple with demographic challenges that are already well under way in California. Given California’s budgetary outlook in today’s hyper-partisan political environment, wouldn’t it be great if an objective, fact-based tool existed to identify the most strategic levers for change — to help keep California from losing its edge?

Such a tool now exists. It’s called the American Human Development Index, and it appears in the first-ever California Human Development Report, A Portrait of California 2011, just released today.

The American Human Development Index is a composite measure of well-being and access to opportunity made up of official government data on health, education, and earnings. The Index is expressed as single number that falls on a scale of 0 to 10. A Portrait of California uses the American Human Development Index to rank California’s major racial and ethnic groups, native- and foreign-born residents, major metropolitan areas, and 233 Census-defined neighborhood clusters across the state on this ten-point well-being scale.

To help people make sense of the vast trove of available data, we sorted the 233 Census-bureau defined areas into “Five Californias” based on their index scores. Doing so cuts across racial and ethnic categories and geographic boundaries to highlight shared challenges and makes clear how basic capabilities like health, education, and earnings translate into the real choices and opportunities available to ordinary people.

All Californians appear on the Index: which California are you?

Silicon Valley Shangri-La, with a score of 9.35, comprises the top 1% of the population in terms of well-being. The majority of those living in the Santa Clara County communities that make up Shangi-La are extremely well-educated professionals and entrepreneurs fueling and benefiting from the innovation economy. Their highly developed capabilities give them unmatched freedom to pursue the goals that matter to them.

Metro-Coastal Enclave California, with a score of 7.92, makes up 18% of the state’s population. These affluent, credentialed, and resilient knowledge workers reside in upscale urban and suburban neighborhoods, chiefly along the coast.

Main Street California, with a score of 5.92, makes up 38% of the population. This majority-minority group of suburban and ex-urban Californians have higher earnings, better health, and more education than the typical American, but they also have an increasingly tenuous grip on middle-class life, thanks to California’s high unemployment, changes in the labor market demand, and housing market woes.

Struggling California, with a score of 4.17, makes up 38% of the population. Struggling California can be found across the state, from the suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas of the Central Valley to parts of major metro areas and the Inland Empire to swaths of Northern California. Struggling Californians work hard but find it nearly impossible to gain a foothold on security.

The Forsaken Five Percent, the worst-off 5% of California’s population, have an American HD Index score of 2.59. Residents of this California were bypassed by the digital economy and left behind in impoverished LA neighborhoods as well as in rural and urban areas in the San Joaquin Valley. People living here face an extremely constrained range of opportunities and choices.

A resident of Shangri-La lives nine years longer than a resident of the Forsaken Five Percent, earns $45,000 more, is 10 times less likely to have dropped of high school, and is nearly nine times as likely to have a bachelors degree. Residents in the top-ranking group have a score that will characterize the U.S. as a whole, if current trends continue, in the 2060s, while the health, education, and earnings outcomes in the Los Angeles neighborhoods and San Joaquin Valley areas that make up the Forsaken Five are on par with those of the nation as a whole in the 1970s.

So while it’s not news that people in Silicon Valley are doing better than those in Watts or impoverished pockets of the Central Valley, it is astonishing that nearly a full century of progress separates them.

In this time of epic deficits and draconian cuts, our attention first goes to the harm that curtailed social services and diminished investment in public goods will do to the Forsaken Five. But in fact disinvestment in education and health, in public transport and affordable housing, hits Struggling and Main Street California — together home to roughly three in four Californians — very hard, as well, narrowing people’s horizons as well as hampering the state’s ability to compete in a globalized world.

Considering the stakes, there could be no better time for an objective, road-tested tool like the American Human Development Index at the heart of A Portrait of California to help all who have a stake in California’s future. The report paints a portrait of well-being in communities up and down the state — and up and down the socioeconomic ladder — and helps to identify the most strategic and pressing areas for intervention to move California forward. Don’t lose your edge, California.

Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis are co-authors of the first ever California Human Development Report, A Portrait of California 2011.