Finding the Invisible: Public Health in California's Low-Income Unincorporated Communities

Published on
April 6, 2012

In the Eastern Coachella Valley, residents in mobile home parks pipe sewage into faulty septic tanks or cesspools. In Matheny Tract, near Tulare, and in Lanare, outside of Fresno, arsenic makes tap water undrinkable. In Parklawn, a neighborhood near Modesto, residents battle with aging septic tanks that backflow into showers or toilets.

Although California is the world's 9th largest economy and a hub of tech innovation, some of the state's residents live in communities that lack basic services known to facilitate public health and safety – like clean water and functioning sewage systems.

I first learned about this issue in 2004, when a dozen residents living near Modesto filed a lawsuit that claimed that racial discrimination was the reason that their communities continued to exist in a state of disrepair.

But I realized there was a larger story to be told when I discovered that in the years since the lawsuit had been filed, failing infrastructure had become an area of specialized academic inquiry by scholars like UC Berkeley School of Law's Michelle Anderson and others because similar unhealthy and unsafe circumstances could be found across the state and country. In fact, there are potentially hundreds of communities in California that lack some combination of sewer systems, clean drinking water, sidewalks, streetlights and storm drains.

What these communities all have in common is that they are low-income and unincorporated – these neighborhoods exist outside of city limits and this can mean that they don't get the kind of modern services that most Californians might expect.

And although these communities have been around for decades, it's been difficult for residents to seek change for reasons ranging from a lack of funding and political will, to barriers that residents face in engaging with the civic process.

The public health impacts to these living conditions can be significant, and in the story I wrote for California Watch as a Dennis A. Hunt grantee, I tried to illustrate the day-to-day challenges residents face, ranging from surfacing sewage near their homes to arsenic-contaminated tap water.

Over the course of several months, I visited four of these communities: Parklawn (Stanislaus County), Matheny Tract (Tulare County), Lanare (Fresno County), and Thermal (Riverside County).

There were ample anecdotes when it came to both the public health concerns connected to these communities' infrastructure problems, and the efforts by residents and organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance to improve these conditions. Summarizing the complex particulars of how these issues were playing out in these various communities was one challenge of reporting this story.

But the greatest challenge was quantifying the problem. As multiple experts and advocates have told me, part of the reason that these communities have remained invisible to policymakers for so long is because hard numbers are difficult to come by.

Efforts are underway to produce reliable estimates. The Oakland-based research and advocacy institute PolicyLink has pioneered methodologies to identify these communities, and they've developed two ways so far.

The first involves an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. However, the agency doesn't count every unincorporated area, and this ultimately results in an undercount. Using this method, PolicyLink was able to find 438 low-income unincorporated communities in California, many of them without proper infrastructure.

The second way that PolicyLink has begun to count these communities is by identifying all of the San Joaquin Valley's unincorporated areas by using publicly available city and county maps. Then, using parcel density data and 2000 Census income data, PolicyLink was able to weed out the wealthy and sparsely populated communities that are not likely to be affected by infrastructure problems. Based on this method, PolicyLink found 525 of these communities in the San Joaquin Valley.

State legislation passed last year will help local governments begin to identify these communities because they must now be considered in urban planning going forward.

But in this moment of great economic challenge for the state and the nation, whether these communities will be able to find the dollars – and the political will – to realize the modern upgrades that they seek is a question that I plan to continue covering.