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Residents Complex, Polls Show : Orange County--Home of the Happy and Optimistic

Second of two parts.

June 05, 1989|ROBERT SCHEER | Times Staff Writer

Orange County is a state of mind.

Over its 100-year history, dreams, big plans and fantasy have played a vital role in turning this seaside desert by stages into bean fields, citrus groves, thriving communities, theme parks, marinas, airports, shopping malls, and booming centers of technology.

New arrivals continue to drive median home values to levels that are among the highest in the nation. In each of the last three decades, 500,000 new shoppers have made the pilgrimage to this swap meet of the American dream.

And, Times Orange County Polls indicate, once they become residents, they continue to believe in the dream.

An astonishing 96% of those polled say that they are happy, and one-third go so far as to agree that "Living in Orange County is the closest thing to paradise in America today."

A majority--51%--say they prefer living in the county to anywhere else. Only 3% would rather live in New York City, and a mere four respondents in a polling sample of 600 prefer Los Angeles. What's more, the pollsters did not find anyone over the age of 35 who wanted to move to Los Angeles County, even though about one-half of the adults lived there at one time.

"You're talking about a major rejection of not only Los Angeles, but of a past life," said Mark Baldassare, whose firm, Mark Baldassare & Associates, conducted the poll for The Times on Jan. 13-17.

The survey, together with others taken in previous years, offers a kind of statistical portrait of Orange County residents, and the image that emerges on Orange County's centennial is not of a conformist community but of one attempting to balance competing goals: personal liberty against a safe, crime-free environment, a strong national defense against low taxes, and effective use of the national political system against a suspicion of Washington.

The polls also indicate that social expectations and values are far more complex than the county's reputation as a leading center of conservative culture might suggest. What has been true through the county's 100-year history still holds today: There is nothing simple or predictable about the response of its residents to a host of social issues.

Abortion Issue

For example, despite their political conservatism and although about one-third say they accept a literal interpretation of the Bible, a majority of Orange County residents oppose a ban on abortions or on the rental of X-rated videotapes. An earlier survey shows that they also tend to be more tolerant of homosexual rights than the national average.

In present-day Orange County, shifting values and other signs of profound social change do not seem to have produced the widespread sense of dismay or disorientation they occasionally did in past generations.

Historians have attributed the appearance of a virulent Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the ultraconservative John Birch Society in the 1960s to the sense of social disarray brought on by waves of newcomers and by economic development.

Today, changes in the economic environment are more profound than previously, but the public appears to have taken it all in stride.

The most recent Times Orange County Poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4%, shows that while there is a keen awareness of persistent problems, optimism is endemic.

Most Are Happy

For many, the survey indicates, this may be that rare community where fantasy and reality coincide--56% of the respondents called themselves "very happy," and 40% said they were "somewhat happy," while only 4% said they were "not too happy."

When a nationwide survey asked the same questions a year earlier, it found that only 34% described themselves as "very happy."

But if Orange County is pleased with itself, it also admits concerns. Asked what is the biggest social problem facing youth in the county today, 45% of the respondents named "drugs," 18% chose "no sense of values" and 13% said "alcohol." No other choice got more than 8%. When the same question was asked about social problems facing adults, alcohol moved to first place with 28%, a lack of values remained second at 16%, lack of work ethic moved to third at 15% and drugs was fourth at 14%.

The Times polls and other evidence do reveal one major area of discontent with the county itself--traffic and growth. The revolution of unbridled growth that has marked the very essence of Orange County has been betrayed by traffic gridlock and smog. Now the idea of curtailing growth--and indeed government planning of growth, once a dangerous heresy--is a popular cause. Conservatism in Orange County turns out to be highly pragmatic, that which does not work is rejected and, as a result, planning is no longer a curse word.

"For the last three years, three out of four residents named traffic and growth as the main issues facing the county," Baldassare said, referring to the annual survey of the county conducted by UC Irvine. "Everybody agrees that something should be done but there is no consensus on who should do it and how to pay for it."

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