Golis: The economic divide comes to Sonoma County

Here in the kingdom of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and world-class wines, we like to believe that everyone can prosper.|

Here in the kingdom of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and world-class wines, we like to believe that everyone can prosper.

But now comes a Sacramento think tank with a different conclusion. Even in California, says the California Budget and Policy Center, the rich are getting richer, and the poor … well, you know the rest.

The study found that over the past 25 years, the average annual income of the top 1 percent of Sonoma County households increased by 40 percent, while the average annual income of the other 99 percent declined by 10 percent.

For local leaders, this could be a wake-up call, a signal to redouble efforts to create housing for working people, revive neglected neighborhoods and promote jobs that pay a livable wage.

But then, it isn’t the first wake-up call. In 2014, a blue-ribbon report - Portrait of Sonoma County - chronicled disparities in economic and social conditions from one neighborhood to another. The median household income in one Bennett Valley neighborhood, for example, was almost twice as high as the median income of a neighborhood five miles away in Roseland.

Signs of economic inequality can be found in increased rates of poverty, the growth in jobs that pay lower wages, the rapid run-up in apartment rents and allegations of substandard housing.

“You want to at least see the incomes for the other 99 percent keep up with the cost of living, particularly housing costs,” Chris Hoene, executive director of the Budget and Policy Center, told Staff Writer Martin Espinoza. “When you look at Santa Rosa and Petaluma and you see the other 99 percent with declining incomes, you know the answer then is that incomes are not keeping up with the cost of living.”

Late last year, a Santa Rosa city staff analysis reported that recent job growth has been concentrated in industries in which 80 percent of the workers earn less than $40,000. Measured against the cost of housing, the report said, households with incomes below $40,000 are officially listed as “very low income.” Since 2012, apartment rents in Sonoma County have increased by more than 40 percent.

For some time, local government leaders have talked about ways to respond to a housing crisis, but except for additional monies to support emergency services for the homeless, they don’t have a lot to show for their efforts.

In some of the county’s fanciest neighborhoods, housing proposals have encountered backyard resistance.

No doubt the growing gap between rich and poor reflects patterns seen across the nation. In the rush of technology and globalization, income inequality has become a fact of life. The middle class is hurting because the manufacturing jobs that were the bread and butter of many towns are gone.

A new national study, released Thursday, also found a widening gap between the richest and the poorest communities.

Market forces dictate the terms of engagement. In simplest terms, many products are now manufactured overseas because labor is cheaper, and consumers don’t want to pay the cost of having them manufactured in this country.

Income inequality is growing throughout California, the Budget and Policy Center report found, with the biggest income gaps occurring in the wealthy urban centers, where prosperity “has boosted the incomes of those at the very top.”

“In the San Francisco metro area,” the report says, “the average income of the top 1 percent of households - $3.6 million in 2013 - was 44 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent ($81,094).”

History long ago taught us there are no easy solutions when it comes to breaking cycles of poverty.

In Sonoma County, advocacy groups talk about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but that still translates into far less money - $31,200 a year - than people need to keep pace with the cost of housing here.

In broad terms, we understand that we need to build more housing, we need to spur economic opportunity by raising school performance, we need to make sure kids grow-up in healthy neighborhoods, and we need to promote jobs that pay higher wages. In the short term, self-interest will oblige employers to find ways to help their employees deal with the high cost and the scarcity of housing.

You will recognize remedies pursued in towns all over America. Some will find success, usually when they embrace the need for focus and determination. Others will vacillate, hoping that everything will be OK.

What we know is that accepting economic and social inequality as a fact of life should never be an option. Even if you are among the one percent, you understand that your town can’t be healthy or successful when larger numbers of people are left behind.

When it comes to counting up the social ills associated with poverty, the list grows long - and the costs won’t be confined to a spreadsheet.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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