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Editorial: Behind the Valley ‘portrait’

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If the Sonoma Valley were a person under psychiatric care, the diagnosis might well be some form of dissociative identity disorder, a personality split between dramatic extremes.

At least that’s one conclusion – albeit hopelessly simplistic – that could be drawn from the “Portrait of Sonoma Valley” presented Wednesday evening by representatives of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services (DHS) to a packed meeting at the Sonoma Valley Grange.

That’s because, from a rich trove of demographic data about our Valley, there emerged two very different profiles, almost as opposite as night and day.

The data was collected in collaboration with Measure of America, a nationwide project rating neighborhoods on health, access to knowledge and living standards. Results have been translated into a Human Development Index, on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest), to reveal disparities between one neighborhood and another as a guide to further action.

Collected for each census tract in the county, the data was then organized by neighborhoods to highlight areas of disparity. Which brings us to two neighborhoods – Downtown Sonoma, and what might be considered its polar opposite, Fetters Springs/Aqua Caliente West.

Consider these statistical comparisons:

Downtown Sonoma has a Human Development Index (HDI) of 6.95 out of 10. Fetters et al has an HDI of 3.41, among the bottom five in the county.

Downtown is 14.4 percent Latino, Fetters is 66.4 percent Latino.

Downtown has a school enrollment rate of 86 percent, Fetters is at 68 percent. Downtown adults have a high school completion rate of 95.7 percent; in Fetters it’s 64.6 percent.

Median income in downtown is $42,835, in Fetters it’s $19,444, lowest in the Valley.

Downtown, the average household size is 2.1; in Fetters, average household size is 4.5.

More or less night and day.

But here’s the first big surprise. Residents of downtown have a life expectancy of 80.4 years; in Fetters, life expectancy is 81.8 years. How is that possible, given dramatic differences in wealth and education? The answer is called the Latino Health Paradox. It turns out that Latinos smoke less than whites, have lower rates of excessive drinking and have stronger social support and family cohesion.

And just like that, a whole basket of cultural and ethnic assumptions go up in smoke. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, Sonoma Valley Latino students have about the same high school graduation rate as whites – around 90 percent.

Brian Vaughn, director of health policy, planning and evaluation for DHS emphasized that the single biggest driver in reducing disparities is education. Nothing else comes close.

The portrait’s statistical stew is more than an interesting exercise; its ultimate purpose is to map out disparities between neighborhoods in order to explore practical strategies to improve the quality of life countywide.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin described the study’s ultimate objective this way: “We want to achieve our goal of being the healthiest county in California by 2020. Ambitious? Perhaps, but it’s also incredibly important.”

We salute the extraordinary effort put into compiling, interpreting and presenting all this data. Now the hard work must follow – prominently including the extension of equal educational opportunity to everyone, beginning with preschool.