Orange County is looking at a future of lower wages, fueled by the permanent loss of middle class manufacturing jobs, unless a variety of groups work together to create a stronger local economy, according to a report by a coalition of universities, nonprofit and labor organizations.

“Orange County is on the cusp of change,” according to the report released Tuesday by the University of California, Irvine Community & Labor Project and the UCLA Labor Center.

But, the report said, that change won’t be for the better if a growing economic split that is creating two Orange Counties continues.

One Orange County is wealthy and clustered either south of the 55 freeway or along the coast and perimeter hills. The other, north of the 55 and centered on the former farmlands and post World War II housing boom inland communities, is facing high unemployment and a poor economic future.

“The top five cities with highest unemployment in Orange County – Anaheim, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Stanton, and Buena Park – are also the lowest-income areas,” the researchers reported.

To improve the economic outlook county residents need to push government and business leaders “to develop solutions and policies that address the needs of low-income, people of color and immigrant communities,” the report said.

Actions that would help the county reach those goals include increased voter turnout, “political reform,” stronger citizen participation in groups that address problems and research to define long term goals.

By “political reform,” the report’s authors said, residents need to “define the public good and support policies that contribute to the public good while reforming those institutions that are inadequate.”

During a panel discussion, moderated by Voice of OC Editor Norberto Santana Jr., Kimberly Claytor, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said she doesn’t belong to any political party and the issues involved are larger than partisan politics.

Community leaders and activists, she said, should focus on “what kind of society do we want to live in?”

Among issues listed in the 50-page report that non-profit members and labor groups said surprised or disturbed them:

  • Only two percent of Orange County’s more than three million residents are black, but they are the largest target of hate crimes.
  • Most Orange County job growth in the next decade is in low-wage industries like tourism, and entry-level retail and restaurant work. Tourism alone accounts for 15 percent of the county’s overall employment, but the average 2012 annual salary was $23,707. Only police officers, also a growing industry, received more than $20 an hour for jobs that are expected to be created in the next 10 years.
  • The high cost of living in Orange County means almost half of existing households can’t afford to buy an entry-level home and the average rent on a one bedroom apartment requires an annual income of $52,480. That means a minimum-wage worker would need to work two full time jobs, or 126 hours, to be able to afford the rent.
  • The county’s inequality divides along racial, ethnic, and geographic lines, with immigrant communities, people of color, and residents in North and Central Orange County bearing the brunt of low incomes. Most people of color live in the lower-income areas of north and central Orange County with Latinos concentrated in Santa Ana, La Habra, Stanton and Anaheim; and about one-third of all Asians and Pacific Islanders in Westminster, Garden Grove and Irvine.
  • In coming decades Latinos will become the majority in Orange County and at least half of Orange County voters will be Asian or Latino.

Mary Ann Foo, executive director of the nonprofit Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance or OCAPICA, a discussion panelist, said voter education in Asian and other immigrant communities is especially important so that voting booth decisions are made on what candidates “stand for” and “accountability,” instead of whether they showed up at a community cultural festival or other event.

And, she said, young Asian voters, in particular, are getting away from voting based on what they think a party or candidate will do that they agree with in terms of policies toward just Asia or a particular country.

Now, she said, “it’s not the issues about the home country, it’s about the issues here.”

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