With talk of inflation and shortages and gas prices, the nation is in the grips of economic anxiety, fearing the fair deal and honest work of the American Dream is beyond their grasp.
The Golden State, despite its overflowing state coffers, has the highest number of impoverished residents in the nation. The Public Policy Institute of California found in July 2021 that 1 in 6 Californians were not “in poverty but lived fairly close to the poverty line.” Combined with those in poverty, 34% of the state is “poor or near poor.”
Stacker Media, a newsroom that practices data journalism, crunched the numbers and determined the 25 lowest earning counties in California. Its findings hit alarmingly close to home
- Trinity County, the eastern vertex of the Emerald Triangle, is the lowest-earning county in the state.
- Humboldt County, the northwestern corner of the Emerald Triangle, replete with a college town infused with out-of-area cash, ranks the fifth lowest earning county in California.
- Lake County, a landscape dominated by volcanic hillsides and dead dreams of a would-be resort destination, ranks sixth in the state for the lowest earnings.
- Del Norte County, home to California’s only supermax prison–Pelican Bay-is the seventh lowest earning county in California.
- Just outside of the top ten lowest earning counties in the Golden State is Mendocino County, which stands as the thirteenth lowest earning county in the state
The National Preparedness Center’s Argonne National Laboratory sought to identify how local economies fared in the wake of the COVID-19 disruption. They developed the County Economic Impact Index which “estimates the change in overall county-level activity during the COVID-19 pandemic relative to January 2020.” This data point “provides the ability to monitor trends over time of the economic health of counties in the United States.”
They found the counties that earn the least (Trinity, Humboldt, Del Norte, and Lake) fared better than Mendocino County and its considerably more affluent counties to the south including Sonoma, Marin, and the Bay Area counties in general.
So, counties with lower rates of household income proved more economically resilient to the disruptions of COVID-19.
What about the poverty rate? This commonly cited metric measures the percentage of people that live below the federally designated poverty line. The US Census Bureau tells us 18.5% of Del Notre’s residents are in poverty. Trinity’s stands at 18%. Humboldt and Lake Counties are very similar–standing at 15.8% and 15.9% respectively. The outlier is Mendocino County at 14.3%, the least impoverished county on the North Coast.
Every North Coast county has a higher poverty rate than California’s as a whole which stands at 11.5% just a tad higher than the overall United States poverty rate which stands at 11.4%.
True to the times, when considering the economic strain of a community, gas prices can indicate the struggles of the average joe. In a review of AAA’s map of California’s average gas prices, the most expensive average gas price on the North Coast is currently in Humboldt County–averaging $6.78/gallon followed closely by Del Norte at $6.73/gallon. Trinity County’s average gallon stands at $6.53 about ten cents more than Mendocino’s average at $6.42
Other than counties of California’s rural east, a smattering in the Bay Area, and a few on the Southern California Coast, California’s northern reaches have higher gas prices than the rest of the state. The economic consequence of this price rise is exacerbated by low household incomes and a high poverty rate. The counties with the lowest wages and highest poverty rates in the state are paying the highest prices in the nation at the pump.
What about other metrics? Aren’t there other ways to measure the overall quality of life outside of economics?
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation teamed up with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute for a nationwide, county-by-county ranking of the health outcomes. Out of 58 counties in California, Trinity stands as the least healthy county in the state followed closely by Lake County, the 56th least healthy. Del Norte sits in the bottom eight as the 51st least healthy county in the Golden State. Mendocino County is next at 44th followed by Humboldt at 39th. So much for the rural, rugged outdoor lifestyle to keep us in shape.
The middle class of the North Coast has been at the whims of multiple boom and bust cycles over the last few generations. The logging industry, once a steady source of working-class jobs, is a ghost of what it once was. The railroads stopped running, ending mass transit of goods. The cannabis industry was once a means of economic mobility. Cannabis farmers spent locally, a means of bringing more taxes to the local coffers. But now, in the wake of legalization, taxation, and a byzantine bureaucracy, many cannabis growers that filled the region’s sales tax coffers are heading to greener pastures.
The region’s economic turmoil might point toward an underlying sense of hopelessness contributing to the negative health outcomes documented by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Researchers and policymakers have identified an alarming trend they are calling “deaths of despair” brought about by the hopelessness of economic insecurity and correlated conditions. These behavior-related conditions common to “deaths of despair include obesity, suicide, alcoholism, and overdoses.”
On the North Coast, there are indicators that a toxic brew of economic desperation and resulting feelings of hopelessness are leading to a rise in mortality and what researchers would call “deaths of despair.”
Using data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, when it comes to obesity, the Central Valley makes up essentially the bottom eight California counties. The first North Coast county to make an appearance is Del Notre sitting at 49th place. Lake County is the 46th most obese in the state, Mendocino is the 36th, Trinity is the 31st, and Humboldt is the 19th most obese county.
Let’s Get Healthy California surveyed the suicide rate between 2017-2019 in California and shows that Trinity County, along with its lowest earnings and worst health outcomes, has the most cases of suicide per 100,000 residents. Lake County has the second highest rate. Humboldt County has the 9th highest and Mendocino County has the 10th highest suicide rate in the state.
The California Overdose Surveillance Dashboard indicates Lake County has the third highest rate of overdoses in California immediately followed by Mendocino with the fourth highest. Humboldt County stands as the 11th highest. Trinity County’s data is not on the dashboard and Del Norte’s overdose rate stands as an outlier well in the middle of the California pack.
The data speaks for itself: the citizenry of the North Coast, living in a rugged landscape with limited economic opportunity, seems to be falling into the same behavior-related conditions that lead to “deaths of despair.”
Lindsey Daugherty, the Executive Director of Mendocino County’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told us, in her experience, “financial insecurity leads to higher levels of depression and anxiety, with many experiencing guilt and shame at the idea of not being able to meet basic physical needs.”
Daughterty explained that when the essentials of food, shelter, and clothing are not available, “mental wellness is forced onto the back burner at least until survival needs are met. This is also true for those that find themselves in the throes of physical illness due to the cycles of drug use and withdrawal.”
The fall of these industries did not just affect those that worked at those mills and farms. Daugherty said, “As we have watched the decline of these industries, we have also witnessed poverty, addiction, and homelessness become generational among the impacted.” The trauma of financial ruin ripples through time and space. Daughtery went on, “People who watched their parents struggle to make ends meet are now experiencing this for themselves, with very little hope for a means to build a better life.”
The Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C. think-tank that has eluded attempts to label its work as liberal or conservative, published a paper in July 2021 entitled Addressing America’s crisis of despair and economic recovery: A call for a coordinated effort.
Their policy paper argued that attempts thus far to address America’s growing despair have been “fragmented” with a focus on treating symptoms of this despair, not the root causes. The paper argues for a federal-level entity to connect local efforts to other communities in need of those same strategies.
While the Center for Disease Control keeps meticulous records for mortality trends, the Brookings Institute is concerned there is “no system that tracks the underlying causes of these deaths.” Compare this practice with New Zealand or the United Kingdom, which are regularly polling their public’s well-being “as part of their national statistics collection.”
The Brookings Institution proposes five key areas of development if a federal interagency task force was to be put into place: “data collection; changing the public narrative; addressing community-wide despair as part of the future of work; private-public sector partnerships; and despair as a national security issue.”
But, for us here on the North Coast, Washington D.C. is a long way away. Recently, Governor Gavin Newsom announced he is distributing over $10 million dollars to support attempts to end homelessness and drug addiction. Locally, Mendocino County is making strides with its use of Measure B funds and availing more mental health services to its residents.
But, as the Brookings Institute asked, what is the underlying cause? Economics.
Martin Luther King, Jr. published a book of sermons entitled A Knock at Midnight. In it, he described the tragic, existential results of a person denied their right to earn a fair wage and see a brighter future: ” [If] a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
Lindsey Daugherty, the Executive Director of Mendocino County’s branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), recommended that anyone weighed down by financial anxiety or despair, consider reaching out to either the NAMI Hotline or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
- NAMI Hotline
- The NAMI Helpline is a free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals, and support to people living with mental health conditions, their family members and caregivers, mental health providers, and the public.
- 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or firstname.lastname@example.org Monday through Friday 7 am – 3 pm PT.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline connects you with a crisis center in the Lifeline network closest to your location. Your call or text will be answered by a trained crisis worker who will listen empathetically and without judgment. The crisis worker will ensure that you feel safe and help identify options and information about mental health services in your area.
- 988 (call or text) or 800-273-TALK (8255) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week