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Home > News > Press Releases & Media Advisories > Press Release

Optimism about Orange County way of life reaches record levels, UC Irvine survey finds

But some see gaps in the good life, as disparities persist in income, housing, transportation, perceptions of public safety

Irvine, Calif., November 15, 1999

Orange County residents see their glass more than half full and their cup running over into the millennium, according to UC Irvine''s 1999 Orange County Annual Survey.

Quality-of-life ratings reached an all-time high, with 92 percent saying things are going very or somewhat well in the county. Seventy-eight percent say the county economy is excellent or good. Seventy-five percent of homeowners and 57 percent of renters say buying a home here is an excellent or good investment. And optimists outnumber pessimists by a 15-point margin, with 39 percent saying the county will be a better place to live in the future and 24 percent saying it will be a worse place.

"This is a terrific way to end the ''90s and begin the millennium. In survey responses on the economy, quality of life, real estate, the future-all realms are at or near record-breaking levels of satisfaction in Orange County," said Mark Baldassare, UCI professor of urban and regional planning, who conducted the survey with research associate Cheryl Katz.
"Quality-of-life ratings have increased 32 points over the 1992 and 1993 surveys. Perhaps most important, however, is the large gap between optimism and pessimism about Orange County''s future-we''ve never before seen that great a difference," he added.

While more than three-fourths of Orange County residents expect the county to be the same or a better place to live in the future, for some, the glass still appears half-empty. North County residents worry about crime and schools; South County residents struggle with higher housing costs and plans for El Toro airport; and Latinos are less likely to own homes or participate in the county''s civic life. The young are even less likely to participate in civic affairs-only 21 percent of residents under 35 say they always vote.

"The gaps we''re seeing in Orange County today are between older communities in the north and younger ones in the south, between the affluent and less well-off, and between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites. And young adults appear to be very turned off to the political process. Overall, we see positive attitudes in all those groups, but clearly there are big differences in their situations," Katz said.

The 18th Orange County Annual Survey of residents'' views on housing, education, quality of life and other issues was conducted by phone from Sept. 1 to 13, using a computer-generated random sample of telephone numbers. Interviews of 1,000 randomly selected adult household members were conducted in English and Spanish. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. Following are highlights of the results:Overall Mood

Life is good in Orange County, say those surveyed, but it''s better for those in upper-income brackets. In households earning $80,000 or more a year, 91 percent give excellent to good ratings to the county economy, compared with 62 percent in households earning less than $36,000 a year.

In rating the quality of life, 48 percent in the $80,000-plus income bracket compared with 29 percent in the under-$36,000 income group say things are going very well in the county.
Perceptions also differ by region, with 50 percent of those in South County saying things are going very well, while only 31 percent in North County agree. However, South County residents are less likely than North County residents to say the county will be a better place to live in the future (30 percent to 43 percent).

"Since residents in South County already are so positive about their quality of life, they tend to expect things will stay the same," Katz said. "Plus, many in South County are worried about the El Toro airport."

Most Important Problem

Crime has topped Orange County residents'' list of most important problems every year since 1993. This year, it''s named number one by 27 percent, followed by schools (18 percent), the El Toro airport (9 percent), transportation (9 percent), growth (7 percent), housing (5 percent) and immigration (5 percent).
Perceptions of "most important" problems vary, however, according to ethnicity and geography. Nearly half of Latinos (47 percent) and 31 percent of those who live in North County say crime is the top problem. Non-Hispanic whites are about evenly divided between naming crime (21 percent) and schools (20 percent) as the top problem. And South County residents are about evenly divided between crime (19 percent) and the El Toro airport (20 percent).

"Some of the differences are related to community conditions. Despite the fact that crime rates continue to decline, for example, crime is still a big concern in Orange County. One reason may be that people in disadvantaged areas tend to feel less safe," Baldassare said. Residents are divided along regional boundaries on perceptions of the El Toro airport: 20 percent in South County cite El Toro as the number one problem, compared with fewer than 5 percent in North County.

Public Schools
Most Orange County residents give their schools good grades but think they could do better. Fifty-four percent say their schools are excellent or good, with 16 percent saying the schools are excellent and 38 percent saying they are good. Public schools receive more excellent-to-good ratings from those with children in the schools (64 percent) and those who live in South County (69 percent, compared with 48 percent in North County).
"Most people in Orange County think their schools are excellent to good. But most of them are saying good at a time when they think we need excellent schools. Good isn''t good enough for our schools any more," Baldassare said.

Though public schools'' positive ratings have increased 12 points since 1996, 60 percent of Orange County residents favor tax-supported school vouchers to be used at any public, private or parochial school the parents choose. Voucher support is even stronger among Latinos (73 percent), parents with children in public schools (69 percent) and Republicans (66 percent).

Orange County residents are increasingly willing to tax themselves to pay for better schools. Fifty-one percent say they would vote for a local tax increase if their schools needed more money, and 46 percent would vote against it-the first time in the survey''s history that support for a tax hike surpasses opposition. In the 1998 survey, 45 percent said they would vote to raise local taxes for schools and 50 percent were opposed.

In addition, 52 percent of those surveyed this year favor changing the two-thirds majority requirement to pass local school construction bonds to a simple majority vote, while 40 percent are opposed.

"There is some dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in public schools," Baldassare said. "We''re seeing increased support for vouchers, local taxes and changing the vote requirement to a simple majority for passing local school bonds. This is showing up in statewide surveys as well."

Orange County residents continue to be dissatisfied with the county''s freeways.
"We aren''t seeing much change in people''s attitudes about traffic-a consistently small number say they are satisfied," Katz said.

Similar to the 1996, 1997 and 1998 surveys, only 25 percent say the freeway system is satisfactory. Fifty-one percent want new lanes and 24 percent want new freeways.

As in previous surveys, South County residents are more satisfied than those in the north (30 percent to 23 percent). Those in the south also are less likely to complain that traffic congestion is a great problem on the drive to work (18 percent to 24 percent).
Countywide, 22 percent encounter major traffic problems during their commute and 42 percent encounter some problems, unchanged from last year.

Orange County residents in both north and south are pleased with Measure M, the half-cent sales tax that funds freeway projects, public transit and local street improvements. 
Seventeen percent are very satisfied and 58 percent are somewhat satisfied with the way Measure M funds are spent. In addition, 57 percent would vote to extend the tax-slated to expire in 2011-another 20 years. However, support is not great enough to meet the two-thirds majority vote requirement to extend the tax. Nor are county residents willing to make it easier to pass local sales taxes for transportation projects: 51 percent are opposed to changing the two-thirds majority requirement to a simple majority.

El Toro Airport
As reported earlier, Orange County residents are virtually at impasse regarding development of an airport at El Toro, with 42 percent in favor of converting the former Marine base to an international airport and 46 percent opposed. A slight majority (51 percent) say they would vote for a measure on the March 2000 ballot that would require approval of two-thirds of voters countywide for projects to expand or build airports, hazardous waste landfills or large jails. Forty percent are opposed to the two-thirds approval requirement, and 9 percent are undecided. However, when informed that the proposed measure could stop plans to build an international airport at El Toro, residents are divided, with 47 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed.

The portion of Orange County residents paying more than $750 per month for housing hasn''t changed in the past year: 63 percent of homeowners and 57 percent of renters pay more than $750 per month. Thanks to low mortgage rates, the numbers haven''t changed much since 1996 for homeowners. But in a tight rental market, the percentage of Orange County renters who pay more than $750 per month has risen 12 points in the past three years.

Housing costs are higher in South County-81 percent of renters pay more than $750 per month, compared with 49 percent in North County. Among homeowners, 69 percent in South County have monthly mortgage payments higher than $750, compared with 59 percent in North County.

South County residents also are more likely to live in attached homes, while North County residents are more likely to live in apartments.
"Supply hasn''t caught up with demand in South County, and housing costs reflect that. As jobs increase and traffic gets more congested, housing will become a more and more critical issue," Baldassare said.

Federal and Local Government
Less than a third of Orange County residents think the federal government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time, more than half think it wastes a lot of taxpayers'' money and nearly two-thirds think the government is run by a few big interests.

There is less trust in Orange County than in the nation as a whole: 28 percent of Orange County residents say the federal government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time, compared with 39 percent in the nation as a whole. Only 30 percent in Orange County think elections make the federal government pay a good deal of attention to what people think, compared with 46 percent in the nation as a whole. And 56 percent of Orange County residents agree that "people like me" don''t have any say in what the federal government does, compared with 40 percent in the nation as a whole. Residents are more likely to feel their voices are being heard at the county level: only 36 percent say the county government doesn''t pay any attention to what people think.

These differences don''t result from party affiliation, Baldassare noted. "Orange County Democrats, Republicans and independents alike are more distrustful of the federal government than the nation, and Americans as a whole are not all that trusting," he said.
While Orange County residents have somewhat more confidence in their local governments than in the federal government, there is room for improvement. Ratings have held steady since last year, with 50 percent saying their city government does an excellent or good job and 40 percent saying county government does an excellent or good job. Those in South County are more positive about city government than those in the north, with 59 percent saying their city government does an excellent or good job, compared with 46 percent in North County.

Civic Involvement
Civic life takes a back seat in Orange County, where busy people give most of their time to family, home, work and friends. Three-fourths say they are very involved in taking care of their families, 63 percent in earning a living and 37 percent in spending time with friends.
"Like other Americans, Orange County residents spend the bulk of their time in the bread-and-butter issues of making a living and taking care of a family," Baldassare said. 

Unlike the rest of the nation, he noted, they are not so involved in religious activities: 23 percent in Orange County say they are highly involved with religious or spiritual activities, compared with 33 percent in the nation as a whole. But the level of civic involvement in Orange County is similar to that of the nation as a whole. Only 18 percent of Orange County residents and 16 percent in the nation as a whole say they are highly involved in volunteer work. Eleven percent in Orange County and 9 percent nationally are highly involved in working on local issues. Six percent in Orange County and 5 percent in the nation are highly involved in political activities, and 5 percent in Orange County and 3 percent in the nation are highly involved in working on state or national issues.

Local News Interest
Fewer than half of Orange County residents (46 percent) read a local newspaper every day. That''s lower than local newspaper readership in the nation as a whole (51 percent). County residents are more likely to watch local news on television every day (62 percent) than to read a local newspaper. When asked how closely they followed five local news stories this year, 47 percent said they paid the most attention to stories about toddlers killed when a man drove into the playground of a Costa Mesa preschool. The next most closely followed of the five stories were about the El Toro airport plans and babies accidentally switched at a local hospital, with 32 percent saying they followed each of these stories very closely. The anti-Communist protests in Little Saigon were followed very closely by 27 percent, and the trial of mass murderer Charles Ng by 21 percent.

"Media exposure to crimes like the preschool killings sheds light on why crime continues to be of concern to Orange County residents," Baldassare said. "It''s not just the quantity but the quality of crimes. Crime rates may be dropping, but that doesn''t give people a lot of comfort when these random, horrific crimes occur."

Political Interest
As in previous surveys, most Orange County residents-58 percent-describe themselves as moderate to somewhat conservative politically. Three in 10 describe their political orientation as middle-of-the-road, 30 percent say they are liberal and 39 percent are conservative.

Three-quarters say they are registered to vote, but less than half always vote in elections. Thirty-seven percent follow public affairs most of the time, but less than 18 percent say they have a great deal of interest in politics.

If the level of political interest is low in Orange County as a whole, it is extremely low among young people. Less than six in 10 of those under age 35 are registered to vote, compared with 86 percent of those 35 and older. Only 21 percent of the younger group say they always vote, while 62 percent of older residents always vote. Twenty percent of those under 35 follow government affairs most of the time versus 47 percent of those 35 and older. Nine percent of residents under 35 say they have a great deal of interest in politics, compared with 24 percent of older residents.

"I think this is one of the most disturbing trends in the survey," Baldassare said. "If young people continue to remain uninterested, we''re going to see voter turnout and political involvement plunge to even lower levels in the future."

UCI''s Orange County Annual Survey is the most comprehensive study of the political, social and economic attitudes of Orange County residents. Baldassare, the Roger W. and Janice M. Johnson Endowed Chair in Civic Governance and Public Management in UCI''s School of Social Ecology, has conducted the survey since 1982.


Karen Morris
(949) 824-7913


Feb. 2015
Jan. 2015
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