Children in Orange County are falling into poverty at an alarming rate, a finding that has been identified by social service officials as one of the county's most critical unmet health and human services needs.
According to a report released Thursday by Orange County's United Way, there are more children under 18 living below the poverty level than any other age group. The latest available statistics show that in 1996 poor children--about 150,000 altogether--accounted for almost one-fifth of young people in the county.
The number of children in poverty has risen steadily since 1990, in a trend that was reported last year by the Orange County Partnership for Children. Because overall employment has gone up since then, researchers suspect that the poverty figures reflect a growing number of working poor.
Thursday's Community Assessment report was the result of 18 months of research by community groups, universities, private data companies and county agencies.
The aim was to identify gaps in resources and to locate the areas of most crucial need.
Of greatest concern, the report states, are rising and ethnically diverse school enrollments, services for the elderly, preventive services to address cancer and heart disease--which are the leading causes of death in Orange County--and adult education for the roughly 275,000 residents 25 and older who have not completed high school.
The report will help officials determine how to allocate money and to structure services, particularly because the county's population is expected to swell to more than 3 million by 2005, said William Gayk, director of the Center for Demographic Research at Cal State Fullerton.
"Orange County will continue to experience major population increases, resulting in a strong demand for health and human services," said Gayk, who compiled much of the data in the report.
Maria Chavez Wilcox, president of Orange County's United Way, said the report "will keep us focused, data-driven and accountable."
For example, she said, the projected population increase should encourage officials to improve and expand services for the roughly 813,000 children under 18 who will be living in the county by 2005.
Those services should focus most heavily on 10- to 14-year-olds, who will account for the largest youth group--some 244,000 children.
The report notes that by 2005, none of the four major ethnic groups will account for the majority of Orange County's population.
Instead, large clusters of Latinos, whites, blacks and the category of Asian and Pacific Islander will continue to live in various cities.
The shift, officials said, will require appropriate services--from health care and social services to education programs--that will be culturally diverse and easily accessible to those people.