Health & Fitness

San Joaquin Valley is one of the least healthy places in California, study finds. Here’s why

A new study revealing California’s healthiest, and least healthy, counties highlights the divide between urban and rural California as well as richer and poorer counties.

The report published last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows that Southern San Joaquin Valley residents from Merced County to Kern County are among the least healthy in the state.

Wealthier coastal counties in the Bay Area and Southern California, by contrast, have the state’s healthiest residents.

The 50-state study ranked every county by two metrics, health outcomes and health factors.

Health outcomes measure premature deaths, percentage of people in poor or fair health, the number of poor physical and mental health days taken and babies with low birth weight.

Health factors measure health behaviors, clinical care, the physical environment and other social and economic conditions.

While the statewide average for years of potential life lost before age 75, also referred to as premature death, was 5,300 per 100,000 residents, the numbers were much higher in Kern (7,800), Tulare (7,300), Merced (7,100) and Fresno (6,900) counties.

By comparison, California’s healthiest county — Marin — recorded 3,100 years of potential life lost before age 75. An estimated 11 percent of Marin County residents are in poor to fair health, well below the state average.

Around a quarter of residents in the four San Joaquin Valley counties were found to be in either poor or fair health. Californiawide, fewer than a fifth of residents (18 percent) reported being in poor or fair health.

Residents of Fresno, Merced, Tulare and Kern counties missed more workdays than the state average because of poor physical health and poor mental health.

Fresno and Kern County residents also recorded high rates of sexually transmitted infections. Fresno County reported 664 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 residents, while Kern County had 715 chladymida cases for every 100,000 residents, second only to San Francisco County’s rate of 945 cases per 100,000 residents.

The statewide average is 506 cases of chlamydia for every 100,000 residents.

Fresno County had a teen birth rate of 37 out of every 1,000 girls, one of the highest rates in the state. The statewide average is 22 teenage moms for every 1,000 girls.

Fresno County has nearly double the unemployment rate (8.5 percent) of the rest of California (4.8 percent). It records poor air quality with a much higher average daily density of fine particulate matter than the rest of the state — 15.3 micrograms per cubic meter to the statewide average of 9.5.

In Merced County, accessing medical, dental and mental health care is much more difficult than elsewhere in the state. There are 2,240 people for every one primary care physician, 2,290 people for every one dentist, and 660 people for every one mental health provider.

Statewide, the average is 1,270 people per primary care doctor, 1,200 people per dentist, and 310 people for every mental health provider.

Unemployment is at 9.3 percent in Merced County, and 34 percent of children live in poverty; statewide, 18 percent of children live below the poverty line.

While the study found good news in many counties across the country, that good news wasn’t universal.

“The data show that, in counties everywhere, not everyone has benefited in the same way from these health improvements,” the study found. “There are fewer opportunities and resources for better health among groups that have been historically marginalized, including people of color, people living in poverty, people with physical or mental disabilities, LGBTQ persons, and women.”

The study authors wrote that many of the differences in opportunity were “the result of policies and practices at many levels that have created deep-rooted barriers to good health, such as unfair bank lending practices, school funding based on local property taxes, and discriminatory policing and prison sentencing.”

In California, that disparity often falls along racial lines.

While 55 percent of overall Californian households own their homes, that number falls to 34 percent for black residents of the Golden State. Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native people also fell below the average.

Childhood poverty is also much more common among racial and ethnic minorities, with black and Hispanic children much more likely to live below the poverty line.

Housing hits the black community particularly hard. About 30 percent of black households report a “severe housing cost burden.”

“The collective effect is that a fair and just opportunity to live a long and healthy life does not exist for everyone. Now is the time to change how things are done,” the report concluded.

The full study can be found at

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.