Study digs beyond census to learn about valley towns

PLANADA — What makes a community healthy?

There are the obvious answers: employment, income and safety.

But University of California at Merced researchers Robin DeLugan and Simon Weffer are looking beyond the obvious in two Merced County communities, Planada and south Merced, to see if health is beyond wealth.

The professors revealed Tuesday in Houlihan Park three years of data collected in Planada. The data are part of a 10-year study sponsored by the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley.

The work includes data collected by California State University, Fresno, for Fresno's El Dorado Park and Orange Cove and the University of the Pacific's data on Stockton's Midtown Magnolia area and Riverbank.

According to DeLugan, these communities were chosen because there's a gap in the information that census data provide and what life is like for the people who live there.

The study's purpose is to understand changes the valley is undergoing, DeLugan said, and to highlight problems residents face in order to fix them.

If researchers only looked at statistics for these areas, they might walk away with a wholly negative impression.

For example, Planada has a 45.2 percent unemployment rate.

It has the highest volume of gang activity in Merced County, according to sheriff's spokesman Tom MacKenzie.

But these facts only scrape the surface.

To get a more intimate look, researchers interviewed residents about volunteering, voting, how connected they felt to their neighbors and the social trust they feel in their city.

Since 2007, DeLugan, Weffer and their team of student data collectors spoke to 75 people in Planada and 89 people in south Merced.

The plan is to speak with 25 people a year in each community, totaling 250 people per community at the end of the 10 years.

DeLugan and Weffer asked residents how connected they felt to their neighbors and what they were willing to do to control their communities.

They combined those results with how involved residents are with their communities, civically and in terms of volunteerism, to create a health index scale.

The index scale ranges from zero to 100, with 100 being unhealthy. Planada had a health index score of 45 and south Merced scored 56.

Planada was the healthiest of the six communities studied. The average health index for the rural areas was 49 and 60 for urban areas.

Planada residents felt more connected to their commu- nity and were more likely to object publicly to behavior they didn't like than those in south Merced.

DeLugan and Weffer will give a presentation about south Merced today at 6 p.m. at Club Mercedes, 569 W. Ninth St.