In county, 22% live in poverty, data show
By Susan Gembrowski and Kim Peterson
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERS
September 1, 2002
Nearly 1 in 4 San Diego County Latinos live in poverty, and they are falling further behind all other ethnic groups in earning power.
The gap between the county's median household income and what Latinos earn has grown larger in the past decade, according to data released by the Census Bureau on Tuesday. Median income for Latino households rose only 1 percent, to $34,555, in 1999 compared to the 4 percent increase experienced by all households in the county, which have a median income of $47,067.
The data show the county's blacks are moving up the local economic ladder, albeit slowly. But the trend doesn't extend statewide, where black households earn less than others.
It's a different picture for Asians. They surpassed whites in median income on a statewide basis a decade ago but weren't shown to have jumped ahead of whites in the county until the 2000 Census.
Experts cite ongoing emigration, particularly from Mexico, and a lack of educational attainment as the reasons many Latinos are stuck at the financial bottom. Countywide, 22 percent of Latinos live in poverty, a larger percentage than any other ethnic group.
"New immigration is a major factor for Latinos, and that's especially true in San Diego," said Deborah Reed, an economist with the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research institution. "They have the highest poverty rates and take the lowest-wage jobs.
"There is a positive in that, as the longer they are here, they will do better. For those families, this may be short-term."
It's hard to pinpoint immigration's effect because, when calculating incomes, the Census Bureau does not take into account the time a person has lived in the United States.
The latest median income and poverty statistics were culled from the Census Bureau's long-form questionnaire, which was sent to 1 in 6 households across the nation in April 2000.
The census data show the county's highest median household income – $197,012 – is in Rancho Santa Fe. That's little surprise; an earlier Associated Press analysis found that the affluent enclave was the wealthiest place – that is, wealthiest city or unincorporated town – in the country. Close behind in median household income are the Fairbanks Ranch area, at $189,785, and the eastern portion of Carmel Valley, at $147,685.
The poorest neighborhood in the county is just east of downtown San Diego, where the new Padres ballpark is under construction and where there are numerous vacant storefronts and liquor stores. The East Village area is a center for the homeless, which is probably one reason the median income is $11,535.
In that area and in Sherman Heights, its neighbor to the east, about one out of every two people live in poverty. The 2000 Census considers a family of four earning $16,895 or less to be living in poverty.
Even as the economy and most of the county's households seemed to prosper, some areas became poorer from 1990 to 2000. A neighborhood in central Escondido had 1,687 more residents in poverty than in 1990, the greatest increase in the county.
But other places had increases in income over the decade. In San Ysidro, just east of Dairy Mart Road, the number of people in poverty was cut by a third, from 1,537 to 1,015. It was the county's largest decrease in poverty.
One expert on the area said the Census Bureau split that tract from another directly to the southeast since the 1990 Census. Community development manager Michael Freedman of San Ysidro's Casa Familiar social service agency also said the jump might be because several condominium projects were built there, which attracted buyers with higher incomes.
Education brings income
The lack of higher education is one major factor in the gap between the rich and poor. In the tract of Rancho Santa Fe, with the highest median income, 67 percent of the residents have a bachelor's degree or higher. Eighty-nine percent of the residents are white. In the area with the lowest income, 6 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher and 43 percent of the residents are Latino.
"You do have the large problem we have with the education of the Latino population, which has dropout rates significantly higher than the other groups," said Fernando Soriano, professor of human development at California State University San Marcos.
A decade ago, 21.6 percent of the county's Latinos dropped out of high school, compared to 9.6 percent of whites. Though the percentage of Latinos who did not graduate high school fell to 11.2 percent in 2001, the latest data available, it's 21/2 times the dropout rate of whites. Latinos also are scoring significantly lower on the SAT, a test used to determine college admission.
Mary Catherine Swanson, founder and executive director of AVID, a program to help underachieving students attend college, said the problem is twofold:
First, the children of new Latino immigrants often have to leave school to get jobs, which are usually low-paying, to support the family. In addition, she said, the culture of the educational system can make it difficult for Latino students to get the classes they need to get into college.
"Schools set up barriers of grades, tests or expectations of teachers and counselors," Swanson said. "These systems have been in place and many people are blind to them."
However, Swanson said, progress is being made in both areas.
Without a high school or college education, laborers can get stuck in low-end jobs, and workers earning the state's minimum wage of $6.75 per hour are unable to pull out of poverty, said Sundari Baru, research director at the Center on Policy Initiatives, a local labor think tank that campaigns on behalf of working poor families.
"You need to be making $8.70 an hour to be at the poverty threshold for a family of four," she said. "The visitor industry is a big employer in San Diego and it doesn't pay very well as, say, the biotech industry. Those are low-wage jobs that don't provide ladders out of poverty."
The common belief has long held that if people got off welfare and got jobs, they would no longer be poor. As Barbara Ehrenreich showed in her best-selling book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," many people in the United States have jobs yet cannot earn a living wage. The problem is worse in areas such as San Diego County, where housing costs are skyrocketing.
Latinos fit the profile of the working poor in that they are likely to be employed for more than 35 hours per week and have the lowest rate of welfare of any other ethnic group
, said University of California Los Angeles professor David Hayes-Bautista, who heads the Center for Latino Health and Culture.
"They are not poor because they are not working," he said. "They are poor because we don't pay them. ... When we look at the gazillions in Enron, it did not trickle down. That rising tide did not raise Latino boats, even though they were rowing the hardest of anybody."
City Heights resident Maria Payan-Aviña knows exactly what the UCLA professor is talking about. The 49-year-old single mother emigrated from Mexico 34 years ago. She dropped out of high school, although she did earn an equivalency diploma.
After Payan-Aviña and her husband split up, she moved from place to place, always trying to make enough to pay the rent. She now lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her 14-year-old son, Tomás, and her 12-year-old daughter, Sarah.
She's employed as an outreach worker at Mid-City and Linda Vista health clinics, yet Payan-Aviña said she can't make ends meet on her $10 per hour job.
"The only way I've been getting by is sometimes I don't pay these bills to pay these bills," she said. "How do we do it? We don't buy clothes. We go to second-hand stores. We buy the cheapest shampoo you can find. We are surviving on a miracle."
Payan-Aviña doesn't receive child support, and she has had to rely on free services from time to time to get by.
"I've been a homeowner in this country and went through two brand-new cars, but things happen," she said. "Nobody plans to get divorced."
Beatriz Valencia and her husband, Marco Gonzalez, are doing better. They take home about $4,400 a month, more money than a typical San Diego County household and enough to provide for their 9-month-old son, Jonathan.
But even with that kind of income, Valencia, 25, knows she can't afford her dream of owning a house with a big yard. The median price of a home in the county is up to $333,000, and the National Association of Realtors has ranked the area as the fourth most expensive housing market in the country.
She and Gonzalez, who rent a two-bedroom apartment in North Park, are doing all they can to save money. They got rid of their Internet service and use coupons at the grocery store. They rent movies instead of going out and eat most meals at home.
"It's so hard to live in San Diego, with everything being so expensive," she said.
Valencia works for Barrio Logan College Institute, a nonprofit group focused on helping students gain access to college. She plans to start a master's degree program at the University of San Diego in a few weeks, and borrowed $5,000 from her brother to pay for the tuition.
Baru, at the Center on Policy Initiatives, said one key difference from years past is the county's changing job market.
"In the grand old days of manufacturing supremacy, you worked your way up the ladder and the pay scale, but in the service industry that is lacking," Baru said. "In food preparation work, you work your way around the kitchen. There is no upward movement in wages or a way out of the entry-level jobs."
In 1990, manufacturing jobs accounted for 14 percent of the total salaried jobs in San Diego County, said USD economist Alan Gin. A decade later, manufacturing employment had slipped to 11 percent, while the number of jobs grew nearly 24 percent.
"Those manufacturing jobs enabled workers without education to earn decent salaries and move up the career ladder," Gin said.
"Someone without a Ph.D. or even a college degree could move into the middle class, buy a house and put their kids through college, so the loss of those jobs is serious and they have an adverse impact on income."
Service-sector employment in the hotel, amusement park and restaurant industries did not drop over the years, however. Jobs in those categories comprised roughly 11 percent of the county's total employment in 1990 and in 2000, according to Kelly Cunningham, research manager at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Signs of prosperity
But as the economic downturn of the past two years proves, many high earners have taken a recent fall. And in San Diego County at least, both of the poorest neighborhoods are probably headed for better times because of the impact of the new ballpark. Developers are building high-priced condominiums there, such as the 120-unit Parkloft at Eighth and Island avenues. New commercial and retail establishments are planned as well.
Sherman Heights is also improving, residents say. The area is better off than it was 15 years ago, when the drug dealing and violence were so bad that random bullets would sometimes pierce the walls of homes, said 60-year-old James Justus, who owns an automobile repair shop there.
Justus said Sherman Heights is home to many poor people because it was one of the most affordable neighborhoods in San Diego.
"They gave up that quality-of-life thing because it was the only place where they could live," he said.
The neighborhood's proximity to downtown is attracting new residents, he said. People are buying and fixing up spacious older homes and moving in, driving up the price of real estate.
But Cal State San Marcos' Soriano warns: "Because of higher costs of housing, we are going to see a higher increase in poverty."