To cite just one example of two extremes in Orange County, it is possible to drive only minutes on Edinger Avenue from the manicured suburbs of Irvine into the heart of poverty in Santa Ana.
This juxtaposition of affluence and deprivation comes through just as dramatically in the latest census data. The snapshot arrived recently on Orange County's doorstep to confirm that while some county residents may have done better in the 1980s, many were losing ground.
Whether seen through the neighborhoods or in the numbers, the county increasingly has evolved into a more urbanized place. This is so despite the prevailing national stereotype of Orange County as a mostly white suburban enclave. While the census merely offers a picture at a particular point in time, the results offer a potent challenge to the county's leaders to address the changing demands of a much-altered socioeconomic environment.
Consider, for example, that the county now has a growing number of families headed by single parents. The fact is that single mothers, trying to make ends meet in this expensive region, earn considerably less than half the $67,366 mean income of a married-couple family. The enduring problems of inadequate child support, the high cost of child care and lower pay for women in the workplace reinforce existing pockets of poverty in Orange County.
And new data show that children under the age of 5 are the fastest-growing segment of the poor population in Orange County. What we are confronted with, according to Jon Webb, manager of research and planning for the Orange County Social Services Agency, is a "very real" growth of poverty in families with young children.
The problems of helping these low-income families will tax the best thinking and resources of all in Orange County, for the larger trends tell a tale. While median household income after inflation grew, the number of low-income families--those making only four-fifths of the median income--grew to 37% of the local population during the last decade.
Mark Baldassare, a UC Irvine professor of urban and regional planning, observes this crossroads for the county, noting that a tougher task than ever lies ahead for schools in training workers to meet future needs. And the county, already under the budgetary gun, must figure out how to manage its already-strained social services.
All this comes at a time when government is asked to spend more and more to help people out, and finds itself with less to work with.
So while the county in the 1990s is wealthier and has a more international cast, it also has a wider gap between the haves and have-nots, a trend that mirrors what's happening in the rest of California.
In doing so, it belies the stereotypes about Orange County. Indeed, the county turns out not to be such an island apart at all, but a place that largely reflects many of California's trends toward increased immigration, a shrinking middle-class, a loss of jobs and a higher percentage of foreign-born residents.
These new realities pose tough challenges, but they need not be all headaches and no opportunities. In many ways, the county has come of age: It is better educated with higher percentages than the state of both high school and college-educated residents. It has marvelous opportunities and growing sophistication. The new ethnic mix can make for an exciting melting pot.
For the remainder of this young decade, it will take the best resources and the best ideas we have to ensure that the new landscape is a vital place in which to live and work.