PD Editorial: Portrait of Sonoma paints a picture of two counties

Combine all 99 neighborhoods in Sonoma County and you see a thriving community, pull them apart and wide disparities appear.|

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

One Sonoma County is a prosperous place, with rising incomes, a high rate of homeownership and educated residents who can look forward to long lives.

In another Sonoma County, people struggle to stay afloat. Rent chews up a third of their income. Child care — if it can be found — is unaffordable. A higher education is beyond reach, and average life expectancy lags behind Venezuela and North Korea.

These divergent pictures emerge from a newly published Portrait of Sonoma County.

The county-commissioned report updates a 2014 assessment of health and opportunity at a census tract level. Combine all 99 census-designated neighborhoods and you see a thriving community; pull them apart and wide disparities appear.

Now, as it was seven years ago, East Bennett Valley ranks highest on measures of health, education and earnings. By a cumulative metric called the Human Development Index, this affluent area scores 8.65 on a scale of 10, well above the countywide average of 6.19. At the bottom, again, is Roseland at 3.38.

Life expectancy in Roseland is 76, compared with 85 in East Bennett Valley, and Roseland’s median income of $24,325 is barely a third of the $72,412 in East Bennett Valley. These neighborhoods aren’t far apart on a map, but they’re worlds apart on the ground.

The disparities aren’t only geographic. Asians and whites score far above Blacks and Latinos in nearly every category. Men score slightly higher than women — and substantially higher in terms of income.

(Read the report here.)

No one should be surprised by the inequities described in the updated Portrait of Sonoma County. The value isn’t the big picture but rather the granular details. The 44-page report contains a wealth of economic, health and education data that can be compared across neighborhoods — and used as a benchmark to assess the effectiveness of public policies.

Sonoma County officials say the portrait will guide priorities and expenditures, including $35 million from the American Rescue Plan Act — the coronavirus relief legislation passed by Congress in 2021. They’re also pledging to find ways to involve more people, especially residents of struggling neighborhoods, in the decision-making process.

“They haven’t been to the table. They haven’t been listened to,” said Alegria De La Cruz, the county’s first director of equity. “We are no longer going to mute (their) voices.”

The portrait spotlights people and neighborhoods left behind in the Wine Country economy, and it can be a benchmark for holding public officials accountable. We will be watching to see if county officials keep their word — and whether their strategies close the gap between affluent and poor residents and thriving and struggling neighborhoods.

The portrait, which was funded by Community Foundation Sonoma County and the Peter E. Haas Jr. Family Fund, also can be a valuable tool for philanthropic groups and other community organizations. Sonoma County hospitals, for example, got behind a push for expanded mental health services based on findings in the 2014 portrait.

Despite catastrophic wildfires and a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, life in Sonoma County has gotten better by many measures since the 2014 report. On the whole, residents earn more, live longer and are more likely to have a college degree. The number of people living in poverty is down, more people have health insurance, and the gap between the highest- and lowest-ranked neighborhoods is narrower.

But focusing on the big picture obscures the obstacles to making ends meet in Roseland, Santa Rosa’s West End, the Springs area of the Sonoma Valley and too many other Sonoma County neighborhoods that have been hidden in plain sight for too long.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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