Orange County has undergone several demographic transformations over the past four decades, and John Hipp has witnessed most of them.
The associate professor of criminology, law & society at UC Irvine studies the social impact of neighborhood changes and recently focused on population and economic shifts in the county between 1970 and 2000.
He discovered some unsettling trends: Orange County is more racially diverse than ever, but its neighborhoods are increasingly segregated. Job growth is led by low-paying industries; about 20 percent of workers over 16 earn less than $25,000 a year. And median household incomes remain flat compared to the rest of the nation.
“Orange County’s population has more than doubled in the last 40 years, but well-paying jobs are becoming harder to find,” says Hipp. “Paying wages that would be reasonable in Kansas just doesn’t work here.”
His findings are reported in “The Orange Crush: The Squeezing of Orange County’s Middle Class,” released in June by UCI’s Center on Inequality & Social Justice.
“Hipp’s study provides important insights into the rapidly growing problem of a shrinking middle class,” says Victor Becerra, the center’s research coordinator and director of UCI’s Community Outreach Partnership Center. “Policymakers and investors should be very concerned about this and closely consider these findings.”
Hipp grew up in Anaheim, which was predominantly white and suburban in the late 1970s. By 2000, immigrants from Latin America and Asia had altered the city’s demographic landscape, mirroring a countywide development.
But shortsighted economic policies, Hipp says, have made it increasingly difficult for average Orange County residents to achieve the “American dream” of home ownership and prosperity.
He suggests that business, labor and government address this inequity by:
- Setting wage standards that reflect the cost of living;
- Linking public investment in infrastructure, private development and incentives to the creation of good jobs;
- Offering job training in high-paying fields like construction and technology; and
- Providing affordable health insurance to lessen the burden on public agencies.
“It’s a tough economic time to be making such recommendations,” Hipp concedes. “But the trends don’t look good, and something needs to be done.”