CLOSE, YET WORLDS APART: County report highlights sharp disparity among neighborhoods

A shiny black Acura pulled to the side of West Avenue on a recent morning as the driver bought some $1.50 tamales from a vendor who sets up her portable shop on the sidewalk every day.|

A shiny black Acura pulled to the side of West Avenue on a recent morning as the driver bought some $1.50 tamales from a vendor who sets up her portable shop on the sidewalk every day.

"You don't see beat-up cars or junkers in yards," said David Rosas, a Roseland activist and school board member.

Traffic was picking up as students in buses and on foot headed for Sheppard Accelerated Elementary School.

"Kids walk down the street," Rosas said, suggesting that Roseland is much like other Santa Rosa neighborhoods and not a haven for gang members. "The only difference is they're brown."

But there's a social and economic gulf between the Roseland area where Rosas lives and the upscale East Bennett Valley neighborhood 5 miles to the east, situated between Summerfield Road and Annadel State Park.

The real-world disparity is sharply illustrated in a new report by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, which recently ranked the county's 99 census tracts according to a human development index -- a measure of well-being that includes health, education and income factors. The index is expressed on a scale of 0 to 10.

Roseland Creek, located between West Avenue and Stony Point Road south of Sebastopol Road, had the lowest index at 2.79, well below that of Mississippi, the lowest ranked of the 50 states at 3.81.

East Bennett Valley, an affluent, nearly all-white census tract, had the county's top index at 8.47, far above Connecticut, the top-ranked state at 6.17.

Henry Slatoff, a retiree who moved from San Jose to Bennett Valley five years ago, acknowledged the stark differences between this manicured corner of Santa Rosa and neighborhoods across town.

"It's disturbing, but it doesn't surprise me," said Slatoff, 69, who regularly walks his dog from his home to nearby Spring Lake and Howarth parks. "It just illustrates the gap that's around the whole country between the haves and have-nots."

The report, issued two weeks ago and titled "A Portrait of Sonoma County," emerges as the county and the country grapple with what some community and political leaders contend are increasing signs of income inequality and widening disparities in the health and

opportunities of U.S. residents.

But quantitative data that could shed light on the issues here and nationwide have been hard to come by.

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district ranges from Roseland Creek to Fetters Springs, with the fourth-lowest index, said the new report was "a long time coming."

"I painfully recognize there are incredible disparities in our community," Gorin said at the May 20 Board of Supervisors meeting. Her district also includes three areas in the top 20 scores.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who represents Roseland -- which had the three lowest-ranking census tracts -- said the county's inequities aren't surprising, but the report "puts it in print."

Noting that May 22 marked the 50th anniversary of former President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" speech calling for an end to poverty and injustice, Carrillo said that some county residents are well off, while others remain at a level of poverty equivalent to 30 years ago.

"Unfortunately, we've seen it grow," Carrillo said, referring to the divide between rich and poor.

Board Chairman David Rabbitt said the report will be "a tool going forward" in planning county policy and programs.

But he also cautioned that census tract well-being scores can be a misleading average, noting that a tract in Petaluma includes both the homeless family shelter and some of the city's most expensive homes.

Rita Scardaci, the county Health Services director, said the 107-page report that cost $70,000 identified inequities along ethnic and gender lines.

For example, the report said that whites, who comprise 66 percent of the county's population, have a well-being score of 6.01, second-highest among ethnic groups.

Asian-Americans, 3.7 percent of the population, have the top score at 7.10.

African-Americans, just 1.4 percent of the population, ranked third among ethnic groups at 4.68.

Latinos, who make up 25 percent of the population, scored lowest at 4.27, although they do better than Latinos statewide at 4.05.

Whites are on top economically, with median personal earnings per year of $36,647, more than $4,000 ahead of Asian-Americans at $32,495 and far ahead of Latinos, with median earnings of $21,695, below the poverty line for a family of four, the report said. African-Americans earn a median of $31,213.

Females in the county live four years longer on average and are better educated than males, but their earnings lag more than $8,600 a year behind males'.

The gender pay gap is because of the wage "penalty" women pay for leaving the workforce to have children, as well as women's predominance in low-wage occupations such as child care providers and home health aides, the report said.

It also cited the "persistence of wage discrimination," noting that in a female-dominated field like education, where two in three workers are women, men earn $17,000 more per year.

The human development index is based on three factors: health, measured by life expectancy at birth; education, measured by school enrollment for ages 3 to 24 and degree attainment by ages 25 and up; and income, measured by median personal earnings for workers 16 and older.

Sonoma County's score of 5.42 is well above the U.S. index value of 5.07 and slightly above California's value of 5.39.

Two-thirds of the county's 99 census-defined neighborhoods exceeded the national average, the report noted.

On a list with seven other California counties with similar socioeconomic characteristics, Sonoma ranks sixth at 5.42, compared with Marin (7.73), Santa Cruz (5.79), San Luis Obispo (5.60), Ventura (5.59), Napa (5.43), Santa Barbara (5.06) and Monterey (4.47) counties.

The demographic contrast between the county's top- and bottom-ranked neighborhoods is dramatic.

East Bennett Valley is 93 percent white and 3 percent Latino, with a median household income of $125,922, according to the American Community Survey for 2008-12.

Roseland Creek's household income is about half as large at $65,781 for a population 66 percent Latino and 30 percent white.

Only 2 percent of East Bennett Valley residents are noncitizens and 4 percent have no health insurance, compared with 33 percent noncitizens and 23 percent without health insurance in Roseland Creek.

Rosas, the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in the Healdsburg-Windsor area, is the only one of seven siblings who earned a college degree.

Like other Roseland residents, he contends the area has been neglected by the county and by the city of Santa Rosa.

But with Santa Rosa now studying annexation of the Roseland area and the prospect of a commuter rail station in nearby Railroad Square, Rosas thinks his neighborhood's profile is on the rise.

"Come back in six years," he said. "You won't recognize it."

Five miles away in East Bennett Valley, Slatoff said he enjoys the view of green hills from his kitchen window. The neighborhood is quiet at night, and by day it's filled with the pleasant sounds of children playing and dogs barking.

County officials say the report underscores the idea that education is the linchpin to good health and good fortune.

Slatoff, who grew up in New York City, said that tuition-free public schools, including City University of New York, were the springboard for his life.

"Place matters," he said, echoing the comments of county health officials. "I would agree with that."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or

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