Golis: Widening gap between rich and poor demands a response

A new profile of life in the Sonoma Valley reminds us that not everyone is enjoying the current prosperity.|

We have much to celebrate around here - a temperate climate, a beautiful landscape, stylish neighborhoods, first-class colleges, the cachet of living in a world-class wine region. People come from all over the world to visit - and we get to live here all the time.

Still, a new profile of life in the Sonoma Valley reminds us that not everyone is enjoying the current prosperity. The report produced by the Sonoma Valley Fund - “Hidden in Plain Sight” - offers a summary that should compel community leaders to think long and hard about the future.

“Stresses are intensifying in several areas - the lack of adequate and affordable housing, increasing poverty, the rapid rise of our senior population and the environmental pressures created by population growth,” the report says.

“Though the charitable sector as a whole is surprisingly large and growing, most nonprofits are relatively small and largely offer programs that were never designed to address this growing complexity,” it continues. “The growing disconnect is amplified by fragmented government responsibilities, since no government entity exists to focus solely on the Valley as a whole, connecting needs with forward-looking solutions.”

This 34-page profile focuses on the 40,000 people who live in the Sonoma Valley, but it also serves to shine a bright light on changes occurring all over Sonoma County.

What we know is that housing is scarce and expensive, and we are creating more jobs that don't pay a salary commensurate with the cost of living. When you look beyond the fancy homes and the idyllic setting, you find nearly one in five families with children in the Sonoma Valley lives in poverty.

Despite what amounts to full employment, poverty persists because jobs for women and Latinos don't pay enough to keep pace with the cost of living. Latinos now represents 28 percent of the Sonoma Valley's population - and 57 percent of the school enrollment.

We're getting older, too. In the Sonoma Valley, the report says, almost one in four residents is past the age of 65, an increase of 20 percent in just six years.

Meanwhile, despite good intentions, government agencies and nonprofits remain fragmented, leaving them ill-prepared to develop a unified response to shared problems - housing, jobs, the growing rate of poverty, an aging population.

In many ways, the Sonoma Valley findings mirror the 2014 “Portrait of Sonoma County,” which also mapped the growing disparities between rich and poor.

In the Bennett Valley neighborhood of Santa Rosa, for example, the 2014 study found, only 1.2 percent of the residents had incomes below the poverty level. But five miles away in the Roseland neighborhood, 16.5 percent of the residents were living in poverty. One result: A resident of Bennett Valley could expect to live five years longer than a resident of Roseland.

The Sonoma Valley Fund study includes data gathered by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board as well as SVF's own detailed analysis of the area's nonprofit community. (Full disclosure: SVF is an affiliate of Community Foundation Sonoma County, where I've served on the board of directors.)

The report becomes a blueprint for what's near and dear to the Sonoma Valley Fund - building the effective capacity of the valley's nonprofit agencies.

“The amount of money raised by the 100-plus nonprofits in Sonoma Valley is big,” SVF board member Katherine Fulton told the Sonoma Index-Tribune. “But when you put it next to the problems our Valley faces, it is not big enough.”

The report asks nonprofits to be willing to engage in some self-examination: “We have never seen an organization that couldn't benefit from much more honest conversation about its priorities and strategies.”

“Business as usual is not going to solve the Valley's problems of increased poverty, a lack of affordable housing and the rapid rise of our senior population,” Peg Van Camp, board chair of the Sonoma Valley Fund, told the Index-Tribune.

For nonprofits surviving on “little to no financial cushion,” the report notes, one challenge involves securing the support of the growing number of wealthy people for whom Sonoma County is a second (or third or fourth) home.

In the most hopeful findings, high school dropout rates in the Sonoma Valley are plummeting, the number of kids in pre-school is increasing and so is the number of local students graduating from state universities. The good news, it turns out, is that efforts to keep kids in school and to encourage more of them to go to college are working.

No one should pretend that throwing a switch will lead to changes overnight. Jobs, housing, education, poverty - these are big and complicated issues that challenge communities up and down the state of California.

At the same time, letting inertia dictate the future doesn't seem like such a great idea either. Elected officials, business leaders and nonprofits, too, will be obliged to get past the idea that the status quo is good enough.

With this initiative, folks in the Sonoma Valley demonstrate their aspirations for a better future. (You can read the report at www.hiddeninplainsightsonoma.org)

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

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