Well-Being in Rural California




Well-Being in Rural California 2023 paints a picture of well-being and access to opportunity across race, place, and gender in rural California today. Using the American Human Development Index (HDI), this report presents how residents in rural California are doing on three key dimensions of well-being—a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. Broken down by race and ethnicity, by gender, and by census tract, the index shows how communities are faring relative to one another and to the state and country as a whole. The report found that stark variation exists by place and by demographic group—resulting in significant inequalities across rural areas.

Well-Being in Rural California is part of a larger project, A Portrait of California 2021–2022, which explores well-being in the state as a whole, with a special focus on housing.

The HDI is expressed on a scale from zero to ten, with ten indicating higher levels of well-being across health, education, and standard of living. Rural California as a whole scores 4.84, falling significantly below the California statewide score of 5.85. Of the two racial and ethnic groups for whom it is possible to calculate HDI scores, white residents score 5.45 and Latino residents score 3.89. 

Among census tracts in rural California, HDI scores range from a low of 1.79 in Census Tract 83.01 in Fresno County to a high of 8.47 in Census Tract 6136 in San Mateo County. Most higher-scoring rural tracts can be found in the mid-coast to northern region of the state; they tend to be predominantly white and affluent. The lower-scoring tracts are predominantly inland; seven of the lowest-scoring tracts lie in the Central Valley and three lie in California’s far north.



  • The average life expectancy in rural California is 79.8 years, compared to 81.1 years in the state as a whole. A baby girl born today in rural California can expect to live 82.3 years, a baby boy, 77.5 years—a 4.8-year difference.



  • A slightly higher share of rural adults ages 25 and older have not completed high school (17.4 percent) compared to state residents overall (15.8 percent). Similarly, two and a half percentage points separate rural California from the state in terms of school enrollment—76.0 percent versus 78.5 percent.
  • The difference is much greater when it comes to postsecondary degree attainment: compared to state residents overall, significantly smaller shares of rural Californians have bachelor’s degrees (22.9 percent versus 35.2 percent) or graduate degrees (7.8 percent versus 13.3 percent).



  • Median personal earnings in rural California are $33,900, about $8,000 less than in the state overall. Men outearn women by a large margin, $40,100 versus $28,000, a difference of $12,100. Though the sizes of the earnings gaps vary by race and ethnicity, women across rural California earn much less than men, a phenomenon also found in California and in the country as a whole.