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COURSEY: Some struggling to live the good life

The city of Sonoma is full of well-off, well-educated and older people, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census.

No surprise, says Mayor Ken Brown: "In 21st Century America, there's no better place to live in than Sonoma."

And it's hard to argue that. Sonoma is a beautiful small city, surrounded by hills and woodlands and vineyards that combine for some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. Residents enjoy its mild climate, its vigorous cultural scene, its proximity to San Francisco and its emphasis on "the good life."

Census data confirms this: Per-capita income of $42,261 is the highest of any Sonoma County city, and well above the state average of $29,634. More than 39 percent of Sonoma residents possess college degrees, the highest in the county and nine points higher than California's population as a whole. A quarter of Sonoma residents are age 65 or older, the highest percentage in the county.

But these numbers, while impressive, fall far short of describing Sonoma's demographics — both now and in the future. Like every other city in the county, and like the state as a whole, a different set of numbers exists for Sonoma that paints a completely different picture of what is going on behind the veneer of the census numbers released this week.

The numbers aren't about well-off retirees. They're about poor children.

At Sonoma's west-side public school, Sassarini Elementary, 71 percent of the children come from families classified as "economically disadvantaged," according to data compiled for the state's latest Academic Performance Index. And as you move outside of Sonoma's western city limits and up into the "Springs" area — home to many of the families who provide the labor to support Sonoma's wine and tourism industry — two-thirds of the students at Flowery Elementary come from poor families, 73 percent of the students at Dunbar Elementary and 87 percent of those at El Verano Elementary qualify as "economically disadvantaged."

That's right — nearly 9 out of 10 kids at the school just outside the border of the richest city in Sonoma County come from families that have trouble making ends meet.

"Economically disadvantaged" generally means a family of four has an income of about $41,000, or less. In per-capita terms, that's $10,250 per person, or about one-fourth of the city of Sonoma's per capita income.

I don't mean to pick on Sonoma here, because this divide exists all over the county. We like to think of ourselves as living in the land of plenty. But there are plenty of families in our community who don't share in the bounty of our county, and the starkest illustration of that is in the "ED" numbers collected by our public schools.


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