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Census: El Cajon Has Highest Poverty Rates In San Diego County

Total poverty and child poverty details for 2011 in San Diego County broken down by city.  Data compiled by the Center on Policy Initiatives from U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.
Center on Policy Initiatives
Total poverty and child poverty details for 2011 in San Diego County broken down by city. Data compiled by the Center on Policy Initiatives from U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.
San Diego County Income Data
Census: El Cajon Has Highest Poverty Rates In San Diego County
GUESTSCorinne Wilson is in charge of research and policy for the Center for Policy Initiatives in San Diego. Marney Cox is SANDAG's chief economist.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Thursday, September 20th. An analysis of paychecks in San Diego is out, and the results are unfortunately not surprising. Research by the center for policy initiatives based on U.S. census data finds spending power was down in 2011, and more people in San Diego fell into poverty. Here to explain the numbers are my guests, Corinne Wilson is in charge of research and policy with the center for policy initiatives in San Diego. Welcome to the show. WILSON: Thank you, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: And Marney Cox is here, chief economist with SANDAG. Welcome back. COX: Thank you, Maureen. Good to see you. CAVANAUGH: Maybe you could begin by telling us the analysis of the new wage findings in San Diego. WILSON: Working families in San Diego County lost ground in 2011. As the quality of jobs in major industries in the region failed to keep pace with the cost of living. Full-time year-round employees were earning less than five years early, which was the peak of the business cycle, when adjusted for inflation. And households lost over $2,300 a year in purchasing power from 2010-2011. And overall, earnings shrank, income inequality increased, and more people fell into poverty. CAVANAUGH: How did your group do this analysis? WILSON: Every year the U.S. census bureau releases data called the American community survey. And this is for 2011. It's a one-year lag. And it's a wonderful data set. It's very comprehensive. And it's very useful for groups like mine. CAVANAUGH: Now, what do you mean when you say that the spending power of the average paycheck is dropping? How do you make that analysis? WILSON: For example in 2007, you look at the median earnings, and you adjust for inflation. So you basically say if you made this in 2007, what would that be able to buy you in 2011? CAVANAUGH: I see. And so that not only is the actual amount going down, but the all power of what you could actually buy with what you're earning is also going down. I understand. But SANDAG has been tracking the economic health of San Diego all through this recession. How has the economic slowdown affected salaries? COX: Significantly. Salaries were being impacted before the recession even started. This has highlighted a long-term trend in San Diego overall. And I think we can take a look at some specifics. Through 2008 -- or from 2008 through 2011, there's actually only two industries that we have more jobs in them today than we started with, and that's, believe it or not, government, despite of where it was and losing jobs today. And then health services and education. Everybody else is still down. So the recession was significant. It was broadbased and hit a lot of people. And if you were hit, potentially you either had to find a job, which meant you may be settling for a lower paying one or you become underemployed. And all of those things combined have forced household income, wage rates down. And we're back at about 1996 levels in terms of income, peaking in 1999, and it's fallen almost 9% since then. CAVANAUGH: Your report, correen, also notes the type of jobs that are created, they're not paying people enough to keep up with the cost of living. What jobs are you talking about? WILSON: Well, one of the industries that we look at is tourism. Tourism, which is the accommodation and food services industry, the jobs remained about the same from 2007 to 2011. And so did the earnings. However, the median earnings for someone in the hotel industry is less than $25,000 a year. So when we think about San Diego as a tourist town and the amount of energy and investment that we spend in making it a tourist town, we really need to think about the fact that it is a low-wage industry with median earnings of less than $25,000 a year and start to think about what can we do to make low-wage jobs better wage jobs and improve the lives of those families. CAVANAUGH: This has been a chronic problem in San Diego even before the recession, the whole idea that wages lag behind costs, that this is an extensive place to live in. COX: Very true. And housing costs were right up there amongst the top of the things that people have to -- CAVANAUGH: Hasn't that changed though? COX: Oh, yeah. The average price of a home has fallen 40%. But one of the things that the federal reserve did recently in their surveys was to figure out what has happened to the wealth of households. And wealth goes beyond just your earnings. And unfortunately since 2007, wealth has fallen 40%. And it's hit indiscriminately across a broad range of areas because we've lost a lot of equity in our assets. And the biggest asset most people have is their house. So on the one hand, the prices are coming down, making it more affordable, on the other hand it's taken away a lot of what you would call your safety net in terms of wealth that people count on to build that equity up that they may be able to use at a different time. CAVANAUGH: Now, the point Corinne makes and this report makes, people who are employed full-time in some of the biggest industries in San Diego having an annual income that's so low that they can almost not afford to live in San Diego, I wonder is attracting and maintaining higher paying industries a major goal for our region? COX: Well, if you take a look at the history of our expenditures, you'd have to conclude yet. We have spent billions of public dollars on infrastructure that supports, for example, the visitor industry. Starting with mission bay and when it was built in the late 50s, early 60s, all the way through the convention center and the parks, all of that is supporting the visitor industry. Unfortunately, the visitor industry pays relatively low wages. They argue, hey, you forgot about the tips. We'll give them that. But still, even when you add the tips in, it's not back up to what the average wage in the region here is. So for each job you add, you're bringing down the overall average. And it's difficult for those people who depend upon that industry to earn a living in a high-cost area. CAVANAUGH: One of the most disturbing things about this report I think is the fact that there are even more people who have fallen into poverty from 2010 to the date of this report, 2011. Let's talk about what constitutes poverty first of all. Correen, what are the guidelines that you believe are more realistic? WILSON: Well, in 2011, the federal poverty level for a single person was $11,484. And for a family of four, it was $22,811, and to think about trying to survive and make ends meet on that is incredible. What we like to think about is if you make two times the federal poverty level, that's for a single person just a little bit under $23,000, and for a four person family, that's about $45,600. That's a lot more realistic, but we're still seeing that that is -- when you're making that little, you are still having to make the difficult decisions about are you going to pay rent, how about your car? If your car breaks down, or if you have a medical emergency, little things like that will actually make it very difficult to pay your bills. CAVANAUGH: And also with lower salaries usually come fewer benefits. There are from this report many full-time workers without healthcare in San Diego. WILSON: That's true. There were over 136,000 people who worked full-time year-round but did not have health insurance in this past year. CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about the numbers about poverty because it looks to me as if one of the problems is single-parent families. Would that be -- they have the highest percentage of being in poverty in San Diego? WILSON: Of families, they are in poverty at a higher rate, about 1-5. But if you think about that, you're basically living off of one paycheck for more than one person. So it becomes difficult. Especially if you have little ones that are not school age. CAVANAUGH: And what about children? What are the statistics on children in poverty in San Diego? WILSON: 1-5 children in San Diego is in poverty. CAVANAUGH: Okay. Our median income is $59,000. How does that stack up nationally? It sounds like it's pretty much in there for a big city. ; is that right? COX: It is. It does fairly well. San Diego is about the 15th, 16th largest county area in the nation. And we're pretty close to that in terms of income. So not much difference there. I would say about the poverty, one of the things that surprised me the most was not much change over this last year. CAVANAUGH: Did you expect? COX: Well, when you look at 3% declines in household income, and where the peak was, and we're on this decline, 3% is a very large decrease when you consider how long it takes to earn it back. So it's a fairly large increase. And the second thing that concerns me about the poverty side is that we don't do a good job counting. All of the programs we have in place that are supposed to offset the impacts of poverty, and three that are on everybody's mind is, food, housing, and healthcare. And unfortunately none of those items are included into the poverty numbers to figure out whether or not we're doing a good job offsetting the biggest impacts of poverty or not. I look at the poverty numbers and I ask myself, these programs that we're spending, the three that I mentioned are probably the fastest growing problems during a recession like we were just in, for example the food program that we have has increased by about 70%. So there's a lot more resources going into that. Not many people fell into poverty, still about 15% overall. And we have a lot more resources that are being put toward offsetting some of the impacts of the recession. CAVANAUGH: What you're saying is we don't really know how these programs are working to offset people falling into poverty. COX: Correct. CAVANAUGH: And if we had that data, we'd have a better idea of where we are economically in San Diego County because some people may be able to offset a further decline by using some of those programs. COX: That's right. Other very interesting research going on as opposed to using the consumer price index to adjust for prices, it's a fixed basket of goods but may not represent what you as an report on a limited income go out and shop for. They have been tracking what they call panels. And panels are actual individual who is lose their jobs as opposed to going out and shopping and buying what they used to buy, they go around and look for good deals. Maybe they were once shopping at nonWalmart, and today they're shopping at Walmart stores. And they have been able to offset the impacts of what looks like general increases in the price level by changing their behavior pattern about where they shop. So again, because of the way that we measure things using data in aggregate and assuming everybody acts the same. But when you're stressed, you don't act the same way. You go out and you make changes based upon the actions of the economy on you. And I think trying to figure out how people change their action is very important to try to figure out what programs or how to assist people who fall into that category. CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. So basically what you're saying is these numbers, as disturbing as they are, could be the proPERB valtip of the iceberg if we really knew the whole picture. COX: That's right. And back to the point about what opportunities people have to earn an income, we also need to think about what we invest in to provide opportunities, where we spend our money as a public sector to develop infrastructure. If we build Convention Centers and visitor industries and hotels and stuff like that, we're going to do the best job possible, keeping the occupancy rates low so everybody has a job. But that's still not going to be enough income to get people back up to a living wage. So we built quite a bit of infrastructure. And even if we've done the best job possible, keeping that occupied and operation and fully employed, we're the not going to be able to achieve our broader goals which are prosperity and income growth. CAVANAUGH: Your center is dedicated to advancing economic quality. What does CPI say San Diego needs to do to turn things around? WILSON: We need to look at policies that support working families like wage standards such as living wage or prevailing wage. We need to make sure that we're hiring local residents. We need to think about where we're investing and what kinds of jobs and for how long. We need to think about what kinds of jobs we're creating. So really moving toward that is what we look at. CAVANAUGH: And I just want to ask you, Marney, are there signs that the economic conditions are improving in San Diego? COX: Well, I'd say that San Diego is trailing the nation. And there are signs that the national level things are getting better slowly. But this recession is going to look like a check mark as opposed to a typical V in coming out of it. So 2017, 2018 before the unemployment rate gets back down to a level that's reasonable.

A new report finds San Diegans working in the region's biggest industries keep seeing their wages shrink.

The U.S. Census Bureau data released today offers a detailed look at income and poverty levels in San Diego. The Center on Policy Initiatives, a community advocacy group, analyzed the earnings figures. Their report, "Poverty, Earnings and Income in San Diego County 2011," shows spending power was down in 2011.

Corinne Wilson, director of research and policy for the Center for Policy Initiatives in San Diego, told KPBS people in San Diego can buy less with their paychecks than last year.


"So while we're working, we can't buy the same like we did last year," she said.

Wilson said the industry that pays the least in wages, the tourism industry, has had stagnant wage growth for the past five years.

The industry that employs the most people in San Diego, the health care and assistance industry, also had stagnant earnings, she said.

Marney Cox, SANDAG's chief economist, said the report shows a continuation of a trend that began in the late 1980s.

"We're seeing a lot more growth in low value-added, or low paying jobs," he said. "And we're seeing a lot less growth in either middle- or high-paying jobs."


Cox said we'd get a more complete picture of people living in poverty in San Diego County if the aid provided through programs like food stamps, housing assistance, and low-income health care were included in the data.

He said, "...we measure things using data in aggregate and assuming everybody acts the same. But when you're stressed, you don't act the same way. You go out and you make changes based upon the actions of the economy on you. And I think trying to figure out how people change their action is very important to try to figure out what programs or how to assist people who fall into that category."

He said twice as many people are finding low-paying jobs than middle- and high-paying jobs combined.

Cox said the number of people in poverty in San Diego did not significantly increase, but that number rose in California and across the country.

"So what was it about San Diego that was able to hold that number?" he said.

But Cox said the fact that San Diegans' income fell by 3 percent seemed like a lot.

Corrected: February 24, 2024 at 7:14 AM PST
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.