Monday, May 23, 2011

California Leads Nation in Inequality

A new report out by the American Human Development Project indicates that while some Californians enjoy some of the highest living standards in the world, large sectors of the state are living in poverty, dying prematurely and being left behind in school. The report was based on data from the United Nations Human Development Index, which looks at indicators of health, wealth and education (see here).

Reuters, which wrote about the report today, says that the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles has only recently attained levels of prosperity comparable to the national average in 1965, making it still one of the poorest communities in the country. According to Reuters, a companion study found that Fresno is the nation’s worst-off congressional district, contrary to researchers’ expectations that it would be found in Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta.

The worst-off Californians live in the poorest districts of Los Angeles or in farm communities in the Central Valley. Some of the highest living standards were in Silicon Valley. Affluent communities, like San Ramon (east of Oakland), had high school graduation rates of more than 95%, while poor communities like the Vernon Central area of Los Angeles had graduation rates of less than 40%. Studies by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found similar data (graduation rates for African Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles and Oakland at or below 50%).

While Californians can expect to live longer on average than the rest of the nation (80.1 years compare to 78.6), average life expectancy varies dramatically depending on the community. The longest living residents lived in the affluent communities of Newport Beach/Laguna Hills, with an average life expectancy of 88.1 years, while residents of Watts had a life expectancy of 72.8 years—a 15 year difference.

There are many reasons for this dramatic difference in life expectancy. Wealthier individuals can afford to eat healthier foods, go to the doctor more often and obtain necessary medicines. Poor people are much more likely to die of preventable illnesses. However, one of the biggest influences on health and longevity is the amount of stress one experiences during his or her lifetime. Chronic stress causes an overproduction of the hormone cortisol, which can increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension. It can also impair the immune system and memory, causing problems for children in school.

People of color can have elevated cortisol levels due to the chronic stress caused by racism. Poor people also tend to have chronic stress associated with their constant financial uncertainty. Indeed, there is a linear correlation between health indicators like diabetes, heart disease, life expectancy, and income. Middle class people tend to have better health than poor people, but worse health than the rich. One reason for this is that the higher one’s income, the more control they have over their working conditions and their financial life. Lower income workers tend to not only have low status jobs, but they also often have multiple supervisors who place conflicting or unreasonable demands on them. Wealthier individuals are also able to spend more time and money on activities that reduce stress, like vacations, eating out, going to the gym. (See The Wealth Gap is Making Us Sick)

Some other statistics from the report:
  • Asian American women in California have a life expectancy of 88.6 years, 18 years more than African American men.
  • The communities of Cupertino, Saratoga, and Los Gatos average about $73,000 per year in wages, compared with the Los Angeles communities of East Adams–Exposition Park, which average only $15,000. This $58,000 gap is double income gap for the country as a whole.
  • 100 of California’s 2,500 high schools account for almost half of the state’s dropouts.
  • Latinas in California’s average only $18,000 per year, which is what the average American worker earned in 1960.
  • Almost 44% of Latino adults in California lack a high school degree—nearly triple the state average.
  • Median earnings for white Californians range from $47,000 in the Bay Area to $28,000 in the rural Central Sierra region and $24,000 in rural Northern California.
  • Men continue to earn more than women among all racial and ethnic groups.
  •  In Silicon Valley, women only earn 49¢ for every $1 men earn
  • Among the poorest 5% of Californians, women earn 77¢ for every $1 men earn.

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