The average Californian has done better than the average American. California women are doing better than California men overall. And only Latinos and Asians, among all ethnic groups, have improved in well-being in the last decade. These were some of the findings of the report “A Portrait of California 2021-2022” published by Measure of America, a Social Science Research Council program.
The “Portrait of California” report, the third in a series, provides a snapshot of how Californians are faring by looking at government data on health, access to education and living standards.
Kristen Lewis, the report’s author, described the project as a way to highlight who has access to opportunities and where livelihood gaps exist among different segments of the population.
The report uses the American Human Development Index (HDI), a concept developed by the late economist Mahbub ul Haq, along with economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who argued that human development must be a measure of how people improved their lives. The HDI looks at “the real freedom ordinary people have to decide who to be, what to do and how to live,” summarized Lewis.
California as a whole has improved 15% over the last decade, which means that the lives of people in the state have improved significantly. However, this progress has been wildly uneven, and there are considerable gaps in development among different racial and ethnic groups today, just as they were when the first iteration of the report was published in 2000.
How does San Francisco compare?
Geographically, too, there are significant disparities. The San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley area scored the second-highest among the 32 metro areas in California, following closely behind the San Jose metro area, where the neighborhoods of Los Gatos and Saratoga — recording the state’s highest median yearly earnings of $120,000 — lifted the area’s rank significantly.
The HDI score for San Francisco is 7.60 out of 10. In comparison, the score for the state as a whole is 5.85. Drilling down on this number, on average, San Franciscans tend to live for 83 years. Most kids (82.5%) are enrolled in school. More than half the adults in the area have at least a bachelor’s degree, and the median earnings for the average San Franciscan is a modest $56,000, which is above the California average of $40,000.
What does this mean? To give this some context, let’s look at the Richmond District in The City and southwest Fresno in Fresno, Central California. The Richmond neighborhood scored 8.66 on the 10-point HDI scale. In contrast, southwest Fresno ended up with 3.36, more than 5 points below the San Francisco rating. On average, a southwest Fresno resident lives eight years less than a Richmond resident. More than one in four adults in this Fresno neighborhood has not completed high school and, dismally, one in four children (ages 3 to 24) is not enrolled in school. So it’s no surprise that the average earnings in this region are $25,090 annually, which is described by the Department of Housing and Community Development as “extremely low income,” for a family of four. In Richmond, on the other hand, an average resident earns $71,731, more than 93% have graduated high school and 68% have at least a bachelor’s degree, though one in 10 youngsters are not enrolled in high school.
The highest HDI scoring ethnic groups in San Francisco are Asians and whites. As expected, there is tremendous variation among Asians. According to Lewis, all the racial and ethnic groups are doing better in the San Francisco Bay Area than they are in the state as a whole. Taiwanese and Indians are top scorers, and Lewis attributes this to how the U.S. immigration system prioritizes specific skills over others.
“So migrants from Asian countries are disproportionately well educated and work in higher-paying sectors. They have higher degree attainment than Asians born in the U.S.,” she remarked.
Laotian and Cambodians have lower than average scores and this, according to Lewis, is because many escaped war and arrived in the U.S. as refugees. The gap between the top-scoring Taiwanese and Indians and the lowest scoring Laotians and Cambodians is over four points, and this gap is so wide precisely because the Taiwanese and Indians are doing so well.
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“It’s that the high is so high,” Lewis remarked.
Latinos leap forward
Latinos scored 5.95 on the HDI scale. Even though this is substantially lower than that of Asians, Latinos in the San Francisco area have the highest score for Latinos in the state.
Over the last two decades, Latino Californians have seen a 37% increase, which represents the highest in overall well-being among all ethnic and racial groups. At 83 years, Latinos continue to have a higher life expectancy compared to the average Californian. Latinos outlive white Californians by 4.5 years, and Latinas have the second-highest life expectancy, behind Asian women, at 86.3 years.
When considering gender, Latinas have made the fastest progress among all groups. Latinas’ score has improved by 40% since 2000.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that California Latinos have the lowest educational attainment and school enrollment in the state, and they earn the least as a group.
The communities left behind
Blacks and Native Americans, Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have not progressed significantly, indicating a long history of policies that have failed to uplift these communities. But for Lewis, the most surprising and discouraging finding was that Native Americans’ HDI score declined by 22%. That was striking and one policymakers should pay attention to.
The “Portrait of California” report shows us where the long-standing gaps are in our cities and neighborhoods.
It is a valuable blueprint to project and plan for our collective well-being in the future. The report also tells us how our state and local policies are working. Contrary to much of the Republican rhetoric that San Francisco is in a free-fall state of decline, the report concludes that the average San Franciscan is doing better than the average Californian, who does better than the average American. That’s certainly something to give thanks for at our dinner tables this holiday season.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist, author and director of programs at Ethnic Media Services. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.