New U.S. Census data about the nature of Orange County’s roughly 3.2 million residents could have implications not only for redistricting in local elections, but also the region’s host of civic institutions and government agencies which provide crucial services to residents.
Changes to the population’s size, density, age and racial makeup could all put things into perspective for agencies like the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) in charge of public transit, or the Orange County Health Care Agency (HCA) in charge of public health.
Such changes are detailed in data from the latest decennial U.S. Census, released on Aug. 12.
The data shows, for example, that Orange County ranks third in the state for the most number of housing units, and has built more than 80,000 since 2010 — with a vacant home rate of nearly 5%, slightly higher than that of Los Angeles County, which built nearly 147,000 units since 2010.
Meanwhile, the state is pressuring cities to build more affordable housing which some city officials in Orange County have pushed back on.
The data also shows that since 2010, the population of the county has grown by close to 177,000.
Meanwhile, the amount of young people in the county has decreased over the past decade, with people under 18 comprising just under 21% in 2020, compared to 24.5% in 2010.
The data also details the county’s ever-changing racial makeup.
The amount of white people has decreased over the last decade by roughly 24%, while other groups like Asian Americans, including those of mixed race, have grown by roughly 33%.
The county’s Hispanic and/or Latino populations have also increased by roughly 7% and the Black population increased by roughly 6%
Yet the Middle Eastern and North African communities still lack an official census designation of their own.
They’re instead counted as white.
What does all this mean for Orange County’s public services?
For OCTA, the census data — along with data from local cities, the U.S. Dept. of Finance, and the Cal State Fullerton Center for Demographic Research — “helps give us a clearer picture of Orange County and its transportation future,” said OCTA spokesperson Eric Carpenter.
Namely, it’s used to help envision a long term, regional transportation plan and network throughout Orange County, “the Long Range Transportation Plan,” which aims to tackle “key transportation challenges and opportunities over the next 25 years,” Carpenter said.
“In addition to an overall population increase of nearly 10 percent expected over that time, we see that Orange County is becoming more densely populated and more diverse throughout,” Carpenter said.
Data from the Census “helps OCTA determine where transit services are provided in the context of low income and minority communities. The updated Census data will be used to help in that analysis,” he added.
Beset by low public bus ridership, the agency has cut down on numerous bus service lines and largely reallocated service to more densely populated areas like Santa Ana and Anaheim, where residents tend to rely on public transportation the most.
“We are also making available more travel options, including more opportunities for active transportation such as biking and walking,” Carpenter said.
The data can also inform agencies like CalOptima, which administers health care plans to poor and elderly residents, as well as those with disabilities.
CalOptima Spokesperson Janis Rizzuto in a Thursday email noted the increase in diversity in the county per the latest census numbers.
“Considering that populations of color often face health care disparities, CalOptima is working to address gaps and deliver equitable access to quality care for all members,” she said.
Some agencies and their leaders in the county either told Voice of OC their services rely less on Census data, or that they haven’t yet seen the data at length.
Norma Lopez, director of the OC Human Relations Commission, said in a Thursday phone call that the commission itself hasn’t looked at the census and won’t probably look at it until their next meeting.
Lopez said the census is important in helping them put together their annual hate crime report.
“As we look at the trends, we’re also looking at what the makeup of the population of Orange County looks like,” Lopez said. “The census, and what that population looks like here in Orange County also plays an important role in making sure that we’re understanding what we’re looking at when it comes to the hate crime trends.”
Hate crimes against Asian Americans spiked throughout OC since the pandemic began, mirroring nationwide trends.
“There’s a lot of changes that are happening in Orange County it seems like,” she added.
Eugene Fields, Media Relations Manager for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, said in an email to the Voice of OC Friday that while the census represents a snapshot in time, future demand on the County’s freeway system is based on a traffic model from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG).
“The SCAG model includes long term planning information including forecasts for growth in housing, jobs and land use. Opposite of the Census giving a look at a moment, the SCAG planning documents are long-term forecasts that consider many factors,” he said.
Supervisor Doug Chaffee told the Voice of OC he has yet to see numbers as he is out on vacation and will look at them when he comes back.
The county’s public health officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, when asked about the data, pointed to the county’s new health equity map platform “which incorporates Census data.”
“I believe we already have a solid platform that will drive our countywide actionable effort to address population health and equity with our community partners,” Chau said in a Thursday text message.
Chau said his agency has used the map to drive COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts.
“We will be using the (map) to drive our population health and equity plan. We have introduced (the map) to other public and private entities,” he said in a text message Thursday.
Asked again whether he is interested at all in the new census data, seeing as it feeds data to the equity map which will now have to be updated, Chau texted: “Yes. I know the demographics have change(d) for us with an increase in the Latinx and API communities”
But not all groups are reflected separately in either the Census or the health equity map.
For decades now Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) across the country have been pushing for their own race and ethnicity grouping.
Currently their community is categorized as white in the census even though many don’t identify as being Caucasian and led to Palestinian Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) asking the former Census Bureau Director, “Do I look white to you?” last year.
“Arab American communities and MENA communities have lost funding because we’re counted as white even though we’re not treated like white. We are not white,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, Founder and Executive Director of the Arab American Civic Council.
Over 370,000 Arab Americans were estimated to live in the state and around 41,000 in Orange County in 2017.
Those numbers are based on the American Community Survey and the U.S. Census Bureau, but the Arab American Institute says the estimate is significantly lower than the actual Arab American population in California.
The absence of a MENA grouping has resulted in a lack of state data on how the coronavirus has impacted the Arab and Middle Eastern community in Orange County.
Deputy OC Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said in a Wednesday press conference that there are only a select few ethnicities to identify when trying to get a Covid test or vaccination.
“We don’t have that clarity on that community because of the way the questions are asked with the demographics,” she said.
The race categories used are driven by the census.
Last year, Tlaib listed health research as one of the reasons the MENA category was needed. In her state of Michigan, the city of Dearborn — which has one of the largest Arab population in the country — is 90 percent white, according to the census.
“Which is completely untrue, because the majority of the population there is Arab, but Arabs are considered white, which means lost funding for our communities,” Al-Dabbagh said.
Al-Dabbagh said without a Middle East and North African category in the census, organizations that serve that community would lack funding as well as institutional support necessary to do their work.
“We wouldn’t have accurate data to analyze health issues, disparities, and so on. Including the MENA category would allow them to identify the social conditions of the broader MENA and Arab American community in data,” he said.
Al-Dabbagh said better data collection is needed to more effectively monitor hate crimes, discrimination and civil rights violations as well as help Arab owned business get federal grants and loans.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.