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Even though poverty has hit a historic high rate in San Diego, the region is not perceived to have poverty areas. Latest census data shows significant concentration of poverty in certain neighborhoods.

There were 361,000 San Diegans living below the federal poverty level, with an additional 253,000 that were “near poor” with incomes 50 percent above the poverty line, during the period 2006-2010. People living in or near poverty tend to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods rather than being evenly distributed through the region. This concentration of poverty can lead to aggravation of environmental factors within the neighborhood, such as higher crime, lower public investments, struggling schools, etc. that impact the income mobility of residents to move out of poverty.

One drawback of using the federal poverty rate in classifying San Diego census tracts is that the federal rate does not account for the high cost of living in San Diego. Poverty status is determined by comparing annual income to a set of dollar values called poverty thresholds that vary by family size, number of children, and age of householder (e.g. poverty threshold for a family of four with two children was $22,113 in 2010). These poverty thresholds are updated annually to allow for changes in the cost of living over time, but they do not vary geographically. Therefore, the federal poverty threshold is likely to undercount poverty in San Diego, and thus dilute the measures of poverty concentration.

The American Community Survey is generating 5-year estimates annually, which allows us to track how poverty changes over time within the region. Using a baseline of 13.8 percent, which was the poverty rate for the U.S. during the period 2006-2010 when the data was collected, a recent publication of the U.S Census Bureau has generated four categories of census tracts.

Category I includes census tracts with poverty rates less than 13.8 percent. Category II includes those with poverty rates of 13.8 percent to 19.9 percent. Category III includes those with poverty rates of 20.0 percent to 39.9 percent, and Category IV includes those tracts with poverty rates of 40.0 percent or more. Census tracts with poverty rates equal or greater than 20.0 percent (Categories III and IV) are referred to as “poverty areas.”

The areas with the highest concentration of poverty (Category IV) in San Diego include 13 census tracts that are primarily concentrated in Mid-City and around downtown Centre City (including Barrio Logan, Logan Heights). Although little has changed over the past decade in areas of extreme concentration, other pockets of poverty are emerging throughout the region. Other poverty areas (Category III) include 121 census tracts that are scattered throughout the region including in the city of San Diego (Mid-City, Centre City, Southeastern San Diego, University City, Kearny Mesa), as well as South Bay (National City, Chula Vista), and East County (El Cajon and Escondido). The map below shows the concentration of poverty in the region.

One-in-five San Diegans lives in a poverty area. The combined aggregated household income of these areas is 12 percent of the total income in the region, and they accommodate 47 percent of those below poverty. These areas also have slightly fewer full-time year-round workers, and more female heads of households. These characteristics are quite similar to the national data, where the concentration of poverty in poverty areas is slightly more than in San Diego.

One-in-three Latino San Diegans lives in a poverty area. Those with Hispanic/Latino origin and Blacks/African Americans were over-represented in tracts with higher poverty rates and under-represented in tracts with lower poverty rates. In contrast, non-Hispanic Whites and Asians were more likely to live in tracts with lower poverty rates than in tracts with higher poverty rates.

Where you live in San Diego is indicative of how much economic hardship you are likely to witness from your neighbors. In San Diego, the basic needs budget for self-sufficiency often exceeds 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Whereas those who reside in Category I tracts see about one-in-five neighbors below this threshold; within Category III and IV tracts, more than half of all your neighbors are likely to be struggling to make ends meet.

This picture of poverty in San Diego has emerged through boom and bust times. It is a five-year portrait of the geography of poverty in the region, with the difficult stroke of economic hardship brushing over the fabric of our neighborhoods.

Murtaza Baxamusa is the Director of Planning and Development for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corporation. He lives in Bird Rock.


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Murtaza Baxamusa

Murtaza Baxamusa works for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corp. and volunteered as a special policy adviser for Bob Filner.

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