Women in Merced County are more likely to lack a high school diploma, struggle to find work, and spend more of their income on child care than women than nearly anywhere else in California, according to a new statewide analysis.
Out of the state’s 58 counties, Merced County ranked 55th in terms of overall well-being for women, according to a study by the California Budget and Policy Center, an independent organization based in Sacramento.
The study, released last week, compared the counties on how well women are doing in five key areas: health, personal safety, employment and earnings, economic security and political empowerment.
Merced County was ranked near the bottom in economic security (55th), employment and earnings (54th), and political empowerment (51st). Overall, only three counties fared worse: Yuba, Lake and Kings.
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Merced’s neighbors all performed better, with Madera ranked 51st; Stanislaus ranked 47th overall; and Mariposa ranked 12th. Fresno County was ranked 45th.
“It’s not surprising, but it is disheartening,” according to Susana Ramirez, UC Merced assistant professor of public health communication.
Looking for answers
Ramirez said the reasons for Merced County’s poor standing are complex. “It’s not one single thing. I think it’s a combination of factors that make our county so vulnerable,” she said.
Women in rural counties like Merced tend to fare worse due to limited access to health care, Ramirez said.
Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said jobs that provide upward mobility are harder to obtain without taking out substantial loans for schooling.
With Merced County’s agriculture-based economy, job opportunities are subject to changes in weather and global markets. And, there are fewer professional options, giving women with college or even high school degrees little incentive to stay, Kelsey said, adding that women who stay in Merced most likely won’t get paid as much as other counties.
“I think that the opportunity for good employment is not as available here as other places,” Kelsey said. “Education is not as attainable in this area, which could hold people back as well.”
Some of Merced County’s worst showings were connected to jobs and economic well-being.
- Merced County ranks last in the percentage of women working in managerial and professional occupations (27.8 percent).
- Second-to-last for the rate of women who are unemployed (17.5 percent).
- Second-to-last for the percentage of women older than 25 who have a high school diploma (69.4 percent).
- Third-from-last for percentage of women living in poverty (23 percent).
- Third-from-last for the cost of child care as a portion of the median income for a single mother (84.6 percent).
In the area of health, Merced County ranked 57th in the percentage of women receiving adequate prenatal care (60.4 percent).
The county’s women ranked 47th in health status, with more than 25 percent reporting they were in fair or poor health. More than 30 percent reported being obese and 23 percent lacked health insurance, according to numbers reported from 2010 to 2014.
The county ranked 47th in the percentage of women who said they felt safe in their neighborhoods and 45th in the rate of calls for help made due to domestic violence.
Study is a ‘warning sign’
Ramirez said the characteristics in Merced County are not supportive of health, with many people not feeling it safe enough for them to go outside for physical activity, or not having the access to healthy or fresh food.
Many corner stores around smaller cities don’t provide healthier choices for the public. The lack of parks makes it so children won’t go out to be active, and the level of insecurity women feel in their neighborhoods will impact the amount of time children spend outside.
The data presented in the study was similar to the data Ramirez said she was used to working with, and she agreed with the accuracy, saying it should be taken as a warning sign.
“What can we as a community do to try to support women so they can be healthier?” Ramirez asked.
Steven Bliss, a spokesman for the California Budget and Policy Center, said part of the purpose of the study was to gather information for service providers to better understand the demographics of their communities on a local level and boost support for services for women and their families.
Kelsey, the only woman on the five-member Board of Supervisors, said there must be a greater effort made to involve women in the decision-making processes on issues that affect them.
“Women need to be invited to the table and, if not invited, women need to ask to be invited or included, and that’s the hard part,” Kelsey said.
The county ranked 51st out of 58 in terms of overall political empowerment of women. It is in last place for women represented at the state level, with no women representing the county in Sacramento.
Merced County also has room to improve when it comes to women’s participation at the ballot box. It ranks 51st in voter registration for women and 52nd in female voter turnout.
After two decades on the county board, Kelsey is retiring this year. Of the five candidates seeking to replace her in District 4, none are women. There is only one woman among the five candidates running for the board’s two other contested seats. Lee Lor, executive director of the Merced County Education Fund, hopes to unseat District 2 incumbent Hub Walsh.
“Overall if the situation is going to change … women need to be mentored,” Kelsey said. “Every women needs to have another woman to give her a hand up and encouragement.”
Monica Velez: 209-385-2486