Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007 | As many San Diegans begin planning their getaway vacations and shopping lists for Thanksgiving Day, thousands of working families will be struggling instead with putting food on the table this holiday season.  Poverty is becoming an increasing threat to our civic future, and it is important that local lawmakers take a close look at how it is impacting ordinary San Diegans.   

The latest figures from the American Community Survey paint a stark and compelling picture. In 2006, more than 330,000 residents of San Diego County lived below the federal poverty level, which last year stood at $20,614 for a family of four. Since 1990, the percentage of county residents living under the government benchmark has stayed relatively constant at 11 percent and 13 percent for those in the city of San Diego. Though these figures may seem innocuously static, they belie the shifting face of poverty in America.

Over the last forty years, our nation’s low-income families have migrated to metropolitan areas and their central cities. Since 1967, the population of rural, non-metropolitan poor has shrunk by nearly 50 percent, while the ranks of the urban metropolitan poor have more than doubled. In our region, poverty is largely concentrated “South-of-the-8;” Barrio Logan, San Ysidro, and City Heights are the poorest neighborhoods in the City of San Diego, and National City and Imperial Beach have the lowest median household incomes amongst the region’s municipalities.

Demographically breaking down the poverty population reveals other startling trends. Though Hispanics are only 30 percent of the San Diego county population, they accounted for half of those under the poverty level locally. In the United States, Caucasians and African Americans have seen statistically significant declines in their relative rates of poverty in the last few decades, but Latinos have witnessed a dramatic rise in both the number and proportion of low-income families.  One out of 10 Latinos lived below the poverty line in 1973; in 2006, it was 1 in 4. Moreover, immigration is only part of the story.  Since the early 1990s, the overall percentage of poor immigrants in America has in fact shrunk at a faster rate than the native born population. Demographic trends suggest the importance of thinking hard about rates of poverty among the region’s Hispanic population as SANDAG estimates Latinos will pass Caucasians as the largest demographic group in San Diego County around the year 2030. 

And, as mentioned on voiceofsandiego.org, federal poverty levels are too low of a benchmark. San Diego’s high cost of living pinches the purses and pocketbooks of thousands of additional residents. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Consumer Expenditure Survey, San Diego households on average pay 34 percent more for consumer goods and services each year than the rest of the country, mostly for life’s necessities: shelter, healthcare, food, and transportation. Thus, true poverty in San Diego is greater than what the federal threshold presents.

Compounding this issue is that the wages of poor working adults aren’t likely to increase soon, as 36 percent lack a high school diploma, and only 25 percent have earned a diploma or its equivalency, drastically limiting career growth. 

What may surprise readers is that the intersection of poverty and public policy is not the exclusive domain of government administrators.  In the next posting, I’ll be discussing topics such as how to address 1) raising incomes for life’s necessities, 2) the disastrous diploma gap in our community and 3) the lack of broadband infrastructure in poorer communities — and how each of these is critical as we confront poverty in the region. 

In the meantime, please share with me your thoughts on San Diego’s poverty problems.  How have you seen poverty change (or stay the same) in our region? In your opinion, what are sustainable solutions to reducing inequality in our neighborhoods?

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