PD Editorial: Closing the gap in Sonoma County

It's no secret that Sonoma County's Latino population is growing rapidly - tripling since 1990 to comprise more than a quarter of local residents.

By mid-century, Latinos will approach, and perhaps exceed, half of the county's population.

As the Latino population grows, so does its stake in the community and, in turn, the community's stake in its contributions to local culture, politics and the economy.

More than a quarter of the local workforce, and a larger percentage of students in K-12 schools, are Latino. As a group, their buying power is significant, with aggregate household income estimated at $2.3 billion.

There are 6,700 Latino-owned businesses, about 1 in 8 in Sonoma County, in fields as diverse as agriculture, health care, retail sales and professional services. And the growth rate for Latino-owned businesses is outpacing all other demographic groups, according to research by the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative.

On the political front, Latinos hold 11% of city council seats in the county and it's no longer a novelty to see Latino names on the ballot.

But there are disturbing disparities between the Latino and white communities:

- The median household income for Latinos is $59,000 a year, while the median for white households is $76,000.

- Thirty-eight percent of Latinos are homeowners, well below the county average of 60%. The figure for whites is 65%.

- Sixty-five percent of Latinos live in low-income neighborhoods, compared with 36% of whites.

- Only a quarter of Latino children are classified as ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, compared with 46% of white children. And 30% of Latino homes are considered isolated linguistically, meaning residents speak little or no English.

- Sales for Latino-owned businesses lag behind their white counterparts, and white business owners are more likely to seek and receive financing.

- One-third of Latino adults are obese, compared to 23% of whites, signaling a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and other medical issues.

- Eleven percent of Latino residents have a bachelor's degree or more education, compared with 39% of whites.

- Fifty-nine percent of Latinos age 18 and older are registered to vote, compared with 77% percent of all Sonoma County residents.

These figures are drawn from presentations last week at the sixth annual State of the Latino Community conference at Sonoma State University, hosted by Los Cien, a leadership group founded by Herman Hernandez that has risen to prominence with the growth of Sonoma County's Latino population.

Closing these gaps will benefit the entire community. There are no downsides to a healthier and more educated workforce, successful businesses and a higher standard of living.

To help get there, Los Cien plans to track social, economic and political indicators in a Sonoma County Latino Scorecard. “It's about leveraging the power of data found in the scorecard to make positive changes,” said Oscar Chavez, the deputy director of the Sonoma County Human Services Department.

Chavez and other Latino community leaders are vocal, but they cannot be alone. Sonoma County's Latino roots run deep, with towns dating to the 19th century when this was part of Alta California, a Mexican territory. Its continued prosperity depends on breaking through the socioeconomic barriers holding some of our neighbors back.

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