While thumbing through a new study tying limited regional economic success to diminished well-being across the nation, I stumbled upon this local nugget:
Irvine ranked as the third most-prosperous city among the nation’s 100 largest, according to the Economic Innovation Group’s math. Conversely, Hemet was ranked eighth-worst among small cities.
This think tank’s research combined federal government and U.S. Census Bureau economic and demographic benchmarks, through 2015, to show “place-based disparities in the American economic experience.”
High among economic winners was also Gilbert, Ariz. (No. 1), and Plano, Texas (No. 2). Two other California cities — San Francisco (5th) and San Jose (8th) — made the largest cities’ Top 10.
But the same scorecard saw Hemet as the eighth most-distressed small town nationwide and Stockton as the eighth worst large city.
These rankings were not just another “listicle” designed to titillate or celebrate success. The data-heavy yardstick meant to show disparate life in the nation, featuring a “distressed communities index” dividing ZIP codes nationwide into five ranked slices. The highest 20 percent were dubbed “prosperous” and the bottom “distressed.”
Irvine, for example, had 81 percent of its residents ranked as prosperous. And, by the way, California’s 45th congressional district, centered around Irvine, ranked sixth nationally for prosperity when the study was sliced by House of Representative communities.
Hemet got its low ranking because, among other factors, the study showed 100 percent of its residents in distressed conditions. Youngstown, Ohio, was the most-distressed small town.
As for big cities, California’s Stockton made the bottom 10 with 70 percent of its residents in distressed ZIP codes. Cleveland ranked last among the giants with a distress level of 90 percent.
By this metric, Southern California scored reasonably well at the county level. Orange County was ranked prosperous, Los Angeles and Riverside counties were second-tier “comfortable,” and San Bernardino County was in the third “mid-tier” rankings.
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These regional rankings are in line with pollster Gallup’s survey-based well-being index that scores economic, demographic and health factors: Its latest report put L.A.-O.C. and the Inland Empire in the second-highest quintile.
Yes, there’s work to be done locally. For example, L.A. County did have the nation’s second-largest number of people living in distressed ZIP codes at 1.29 million, even if that was a below-average 13 percent of its population. San Bernardino County was 13th on the county list, with 432,000 people in distressed ZIPs, or 21 percent of its population.
Statewide, 11.7 percent of Californians lived in distressed communities vs. 15 percent nationwide. Utah was best at 0.7 percent; Mississippi was worst at 43 percent.
On the flip side, California had 27.8 percent of its population living in the most prosperous communities vs. 26.5 percent nationwide. Utah was tops at 47 percent; West Virginia was last at 3 percent. To compare, Gallup ranked California 13th best for well-being.
One can debate any economic metric’s design or results, but it’s hard to argue against the Economic Innovation Group’s call that distressed communities get more attention from policymakers.
The index also serves as another reminder that the struggles of our least-successful neighborhoods are more than financial. When index results were compared to various health patterns, monetary woes were heavily tied to troubling medical issues including obesity, drug dependency and lower life expectancy.
Please note that top-ranked areas in this study, and many other reports, tend to be in regions filled with newer communities. Or those places that have better adapted to a technology-dominated world. That’s clearly Irvine.
But no easy answers exist for regions that have failed to keep pace. Los Angeles County and Hemet have more in common than one thinks.
“America’s elite ZIP codes are home to a spectacular degree of growth and prosperity — hubs of innovation and progress seemingly immune to the concerns over automation, globalization, or lack of upward mobility that pervade national headlines,” the report said. “However, outside of those top communities, economic well-being is often tenuous at best. And, at worst, millions of Americans are stuck in places where what little economic stability exists is quickly eroding beneath their feet.”
Southern California, by index of city distress, by ZIP code. (Source: Economic Innovation Group)