63. The center cannot hold*

The news from Orange County isn't good.

John Hipp, an associate professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, recently summed up the economic and demographic shifts in Orange County through 2006. He found:

ï?§ The population grew by a multiplier of 20 in past 60 years and doubled in the past 40.

ï?§ Median home values in Orange County have been in the top 1% of all counties nationally since 1970.

ï?§ The median household income is still about 50% higher than the average county nationally.

ï?§ Nearly one-third of residents have at least a bachelor's degree, which is about twice the rate of college graduates in the average county.

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Not so bad. Orange County is well-to-do, well educated, and, well, privileged. But what sounds like a realtor's dream conceals a threat:

ï?§ Orange County neighborhoods "? many of them ruled by Home Owner Associations "? are increasingly detached from civic life and increasingly segregated by ethnicity, race, and class.

ï?§ Job growth in the county is led by low-wage work, with about 20 percent of the adult workforce earning less than $25,000 a year.

ï?§ Median household income growth has been essentially flat.

ï?§ The percentage of residents with less than a high school diploma has hardly changed in 35 years, but the percentage of those with a high school education and no college "? the traditional blue-collar segment "? is shrinking.

These trends point toward a "dumbbell" economy "? an economy with a mass of low-wage jobs at one end, a much smaller pool of high-income earners at the other end, and nothing in the middle.

Real income levels, Hipp notes, have not kept pace with the real costs iof living n Orange County, squeezing everyone who isn't in the top 2% of household incomes. The effects of the squeeze have wider implications, as Hipp points out:

ï?§ Employers who provide a reasonable wage for blue-collar work will abandon the county in order to find employees who can afford to live relatively near their work.

ï?§ In search of affordable housing, workers have moved ever further from the county's job centers. Many commute from the Inland Empire, which wreaks havoc on the environment and families.

ï?§ The low-wage jobs that will remain don't provide health insurance. Workers and their families must choose to go without health care, pay high premiums, or rely on emergency rooms. The costs to taxpayers are significant.

The future in the OC does not look bright for immigrant families aiming to bootstrap themselves in a generation from laborers to the not-quite-middle class. That hope framed a triumphant "American century" that lasted from 1940 until 2000.

*The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user Adrià Ariste Santacreu. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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