California Counties: Struggling Beyond Basic Human Needs

The Social Progress Imperative’s latest series of blogs are centered around the state of California and how it serves as a stark reminder that GDP is not destiny. Last week’s post,  Are the Young (and Younger) Getting Left Behind in California?, analyzed the relationship between social progress and age in the state and found some regional discrepancies. This week we’re going to be delving into one of the more unexpected components that California is struggling on: Access to Basic Knowledge. 

Despite being the fifth largest economy in the world and boasting the 9th highest median household income in the US, California ranked 33/50 on the Social Progress Index (SPI) for US States in 2018. Through the lens of economic measures, California appears to be an illustrious and booming state, surpassing countries around the world. However, a more bleak picture appears when the lived-experiences of its people are taken into account. 

Summary of the SPI: US States data on California, behind the table is an image of the US, color coded by SPI Tier.

For instance, rapid job growth is a typical measure of economic success and may be at least perceptually linked to higher salaries, better standards of living, and more access to opportunity. Yet, the radical increase in employment opportunities in California has outstripped the number of affordable places to live and lead to a housing crisis, increasing rent and commute times and furthering the divide between the rich and poor. It’s no wonder that California ranks dead last on the Shelter component of the SPI: US States, and more broadly struggles on the dimension of Basic Human Needs. As more people move into the state, Shelter, Water and Sanitation, and Personal Safety may decline if the existing infrastructure and systems are not ready to accommodate an expanding population. Thus, California’s dismal performance on the dimension of Basic Human Needs is perhaps not as surprising as it may have initially seemed. Check out one of our older posts to learn more about the California housing crisis and the SPI for California Counties

Interestingly, California also underperforms, relative to its economic peers, on the component of Access to Basic Knowledge, ranking 38th in the US. By using the data from the  Social Progress Index for California Counties—which offers more nuanced insight into the lived-experiences of the populations in each county—we can start to gain a deeper understanding of why California is struggling on a crucial component of social progress and in which regions. 

The SPI can be mapped against any number of different data sets, but this focused analysis is going to specifically look at the relationship between the component of Access to Basic Knowledge and the percentage of the county population in poverty. By comparing the SPI data to economic factors, we can gain more insight into the things that influence social progress and design targeted interventions that use data to create meaningful change. Most often, we map SPI data against GDP per capita, but other indicators of economic success or wealth allows us to address some of the most pressing problems of our time from a more holistic perspective.

When the SPI: California Counties Access to Basic Knowledge component is mapped against the proportion of the population in poverty, a clear pattern emerges. In general, the higher the Access to Basic Knowledge score, the smaller the proportion of the population in poverty. However, outliers in the dataset provide hope, showing high levels of access to basic knowledge in some counties, in spite of poverty. 

Graph: Percentage of the Population in Poverty (defined by the National Threshold) mapped against the SPI Component of Access to Basic Knowledge.

For example, in both Shasta and San Joaquin counties about 17% of the population is in poverty. Yet, Shasta has more than twice the SPI score on Access to Basic Knowledge (67.84 points) than San Joaquin (31.20). San Joaquin consistently scores significantly lower than Shasta on all five indicators within the component of Access to Basic Knowledge: preschool enrollment, third grade language arts proficiency, eighth grade math proficiency, population with less than a 9th grade education, and population without a high school education.

Shasta and San Joaquin do share several key characteristics. They have a nearly identical GDP per capita (~$33,000) and San Joaquin’s median household income ($54,443.33) is actually higher than Shasta’s ($45,177.17). The similarity between these two counties is a reminder that measures of economic well-being do not capture the full picture of the lives of its residents. 

One of the most notable differences between Shasta and San Joaquin is population size. San Joaquin has four times the population of Shasta, despite occupying one-third of the area. San Joaquin’s high population density has been attributed to an influx of workers from the expensive Bay Area, which indicates that the effects of housing crisis may not be confined to the coastal centers. The San Joaquin Valley has consistently struggled across all dimensions of Social Progress and the influx of new residents may exacerbate some of its most pressing issues. 

In terms of Access to Basic Knowledge, new residents and crowded counties mean more children in school. In the case of San Joaquin County, which scores poorly on Access to Basic Knowledge, new students may add pressure to already struggling schools and social infrastructure. Thus, targeted interventions designed to integrate new students into the existing education system may help decrease the disparities in Access to Basic knowledge between Shasta and San Joaquin counties. 

Kindergarten students sit on the floor of a classroom.

By using the SPI for California Counties data in conjunction with other metrics we can see where different regions are struggling, hypothesize as to why, and develop targeted interventions designed to address potential root causes. 

The disparities between San Joaquin and Shasta Counties are a reminder that economic indicators are flawed. GDP, poverty, and income level tell stories that are often incomplete. However, the Social Progress Index seeks to tell a fuller tale, one of lived-experiences which takes into account basic needs, wellbeing, and opportunity. At the Social Progress Imperative we use data to re-write flawed narratives, going beyond GDP to create meaningful change in California, North America, and across the world. 

Visit our website to learn more about our work in California and keep an eye out for more posts in our series on the Golden State, as we start to zoom in on the counties in the Bay Area region. 

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