Forum Presents Disparities in Californians’ Well Being, Role and Response of Philanthropy

October 20, 2011 (All day)

Appearing before students in the School of Public Affairs, representatives of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors shared their views of findings in a recent independent study of Californians’ overall well-being, one that presents troubling disparities in the Golden State and ideas to narrow the gap.

The forum, “A Portrait of Inequality in California: How Should Nonprofits and Philanthropy Respond?” was presented on Thursday, Oct. 20, by the Center for Civil Society and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Kristen Lewis, co-director of the American Human Development Project, gave highlights of findings from the Project’s study, “A Portrait of California, California Human Development Report 2011.” The study assessed the well-being and access to opportunity of people statewide by using a “human development index” (HDI), a composite measure of health, education, and income. It also introduced the concept of “Five Californias” to highlight the marked differences among various segments of the population.


Many Individuals, Communities Struggle

For the one percent at top of the index, in “Silicon Valley Shangri-La,” the study found that life expectancy is 85.3 years, 70.1 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and median earnings are $63,106. Among “The Forsaken Five Percent,” at the bottom of the index – which included areas of Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley -- life expectancy is 76.1 years, 8.3 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and median earnings are $18,343.

In between are: the largely affluent 18 percent who reside in the “Metro-Coastal Enclave California;” the 38 percent in “Main Street California” with an increasingly tenuous grip on middle-class life; and “Struggling California,” another 38 percent who find it nearly impossible to improve their lives despite hard work.

Lewis said that among ethnic groups Asian Americans have the longest and African Americans have the shortest life spans, which she attributed largely to differences in educational attainment. She also noted that Latinos have the second-longest life spans but the lowest levels of income and education; their longevity may be due to lower rates of smoking and heavy drinking, as well as strong social support, she said.

The study also documented a gender gap across the state. Women earn 49 cents for every $1 a man earns in the wealthiest communities, and 77 cents for every $1 in the poorest ones.


What Can Be Done

Actions recommended by the report to rectify the disparities, include: investing in public health campaigns and food subsidies for fruits and vegetables; investing in preschools and targeting the worst-performing high schools with the highest dropout rates; and taking steps to address gender inequality and wage discrimination in the workplace.

Edmund J. Cain, vice president of the Hilton Foundation, said his organization supports such reports because they can inform both the grant-making process and political debate. “We want to see politicians asking, ‘why is this group at the bottom of the human development index?’” he said, “and citizens asking, ‘why aren’t you doing in our state what others are doing in theirs?’” 

Sushma Raman, president of Southern California Grantmakers, said that philanthropies “increasingly are being asked to step in and provide services” because of growing individual need and government’s lack of funds. She suggested that foundations have four ways to respond:

  • Focus on countering disparities, such as those involving race and gender;
  • Call for greater government accountability;
  • Use their flexibility to take more risk in spending their endowments;
  • Call for more civil public discourse and inclusion of voices left out.

During the question-and-answer session, a student asked how more people could be made aware of information like that contained in the report. Lewis suggested that one way is to make it visually engaging, as was done with the report. Cain added that it’s also important to speak to people’s values, and make sure that “there are no numbers without stories, and no stories without numbers.”

In summing up, Bill Parent, acting director of the Center for Civil Society, said “This is important work, it’s extremely well done, and it’s extremely well presented.”

                                                                        -- Robin Heffler