Youths' location can limit options

Fewer opportunities available in poorer areas, study reveals

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 5, 2013 

— A report backs long-standing concerns that economic and educational resources for youth in and near Merced are concentrated in certain geographic areas, leaving many neighborhoods struggling to succeed.

"This data validated what we've been hearing over and over again from community members," said Tatiana Vizcanino-Stewart, hub manager for Building Healthy Communities in Merced. "We finally have something in writing with maps."

The report -- Moving Merced Communities Forward -- looked at several socioeconomic indicators, including proximity to toxic sites, access to parks, public transportation and educational opportunities.

Conducted by the Kirwan Institute based at Ohio State University, the report looked at the city of Merced, Le Grand, Planada and the Beachwood-Franklin area. The study was funded by the California Endowment.

About 35 percent of youths in the studied areas lived in poverty, according to the report. At the same time, twice as many Latino children were living in poverty as white children.

"Latino youth represent the majority of youth here in Merced," said Jason Reece, co-author of the study and director of research at the Kirwan Institute. "That's the majority of the county's future adult population.

"This does not bode well for the economic future here if we're not doing things for those kids to grow and develop and prosper," he said.

The study ranks south, central and northwest Merced, as well as Planada and Le Grand, as having low to very low levels of "opportunity." Northeast Merced raked highest, with the fewest barriers for youth success.

The communities facing the most barriers to economic and health well-being consistently experienced a lack of recreation, a need for higher quality education and limited access to healthy food, according to the report.

One significant disparity detailed in the report was between north and south Merced's access to safe recreation.

In the city of Merced, people living north of Highway 99 have access to 25 times more park space than those living south of the highway, according to the report.

Anecdotal evidence, collected by those who conducted the study, suggested that north Merced parks were safer than those on the south side of the city.

Residents living in high-crime areas experience high rates of stress, which can result in significant health problems, Reece said.

"We're seeing some pretty serious health disparities between ZIP codes here in this community," he said. "We can see big differences from place to place in terms of the life expectancy of folks living in one community versus another."

However, he added, they found a significant number of youths interested in trying to improve their neighborhoods.

The data in the report will help residents make their case for a greater allocation of local resources, Vizcanino-Stewart said. "We can refine our united vision of where we want to go with this information and spark the conversation with the elected officials."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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