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O.C. Residents Less Happy About the Quality of Life : Survey: 10th among yearly polls shows increasing pessimism about future, shift in perception of problems.


IRVINE — After a decade of urbanization and an accompanying surge in traffic, crime and homelessness, Orange County residents are less happy about the quality of their lives and are increasingly pessimistic about the future, according to the 1991 Orange County Annual Survey released Monday.

While 55.5% of those polled still say the quality of life in Orange County is going "somewhat well," only 11% say the quality of life is going "very well," down from 37% in 1982, when the first annual survey was conducted.

More revealing is a shift in perception about the top problems facing the county among the 1,002 residents polled between Sept. 3 and Sept. 20.

Traffic was named the county's No. 1 problem by 26% of those polled, down from 40% in 1990. Meanwhile, 16% of those surveyed cited crime as the county's worst problem, up from 12% in 1990. Concern over public schools as the county's worst problem jumped to 14% from 6% in 1990.

"We are no longer the paradise people thought of in 1982," said UC Irvine social ecology professor Mark Baldassare, who is co-director of the annual countywide survey with UCI research associate Cheryl Katz. "We are no longer insulated from the problems that large urban areas have. . . . We are becoming more like other places, and the question is, whether in the next several years, we will, in fact, descend into mediocrity.

"And that is a matter of where our economy is going next and the degree to which we can maintain the level of public services and planning that Orange County residents have taken for granted in previous years."

The 10th annual Orange County Survey, which has a 3% margin of error, was conducted at UCI's Center for Survey Research. The survey is supported by contributions from nearly 40 Orange County public agencies, private foundations and corporations, including The Times Orange County Edition.

In comparing 10 years of survey data on key issues, Baldassare said 1991 respondents revealed an "across-the-board decline" in satisfaction with housing, neighborhoods, jobs, finances and public services. During the same period, state Department of Finance records indicate that the county's population has grown 22% to an estimated 2,453,300 in 1991. That population growth has resulted in greater demand for public services such as schools, police protection and roads.

Only 28% of those surveyed rated Orange County public schools as "excellent" or "good," compared to 45% of 1982 respondents who did so.

"That is a significant decline, and I think it says that the public, by and large, has lost confidence in the public school system," Baldassare said. "It's not just in Orange County; I think this is a statewide issue."

Similarly, only 39% of those surveyed gave "excellent" or "good" ratings to their city government, down from 48% of those polled a decade ago. Nearly 60% of those surveyed gave high marks for police protection and local roads, but that was down from the 70% or better ratings given in 1982. Parks and recreation services got excellent or good ratings from 71% of those surveyed, but even that was down from 82% in 1982.

Overall, South County residents among those polled were happier with the level of public services than their counterparts elsewhere.

In terms of quality-of-life indicators, the percentage of 1991 poll respondents who said they were very satisfied with their housing, neighborhoods, jobs and personal finances were all down from 1982.

Only 39% of those surveyed this year were very satisfied with their jobs, compared to 47% of those polled a decade ago. Similarly, 21% were happy with their personal finances, compared to 30% in 1982. Asked to rate how things generally were going in their lives, only 27% said they were "very happy," down from 34% in 1982.

To some degree, the survey results reflect a pessimism borne of the current economic recession gripping the county, the state and the nation. But Baldassare noted that the first survey in 1982 occurred during the one of the worst economic downturns in Orange County history since World War II.

"Even though there was substantial unemployment and the real estate market was fairly weak that year, I think there was greater hope and greater optimism about where things were going than there is today," Baldassare said.

The responses in 1991, by contrast, suggest that Orange County residents increasingly are recognizing that the county's economy is not producing the number of jobs it was five or six years ago. In addition, he said, there is a growing recognition that problems such as crime, poor schools and the high cost of heath care are on the rise.

And these are social problems that require complex--often expensive--solutions, all at a time of tremendous budgetary constraints at all levels of government, he noted.

"People's income isn't growing like it was, jobs aren't being created like they were, and this is causing people to lose confidence in the area, to lose optimism about their own lives," Baldassare said.

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