Imperial, San Mateo counties on opposite ends of poverty

The Associated Press
Wednesday November 22, 2000

LOS ANGELES — Dot-com heavy San Mateo County recorded the lowest percentage of people living below the poverty level in 1997, while farming-dependent Imperial County had the worst poverty figures in the state, according to new U.S. Census Bureau figures. 

Overall, poverty among Californians declined between 1995 and 1997, but families continue to struggle in rural areas where jobs and affordable housing remain scarce. 

Income and poverty figures released Tuesday night by the Census Bureau offered poverty estimates for the nation’s 3,141 counties, including the state’s 58 counties. Imperial County had the highest poverty rate in California, with 41,065, or 30.3 percent of its population, living below the poverty level. 

In 1997, a family of four was considered poor if its annual income was below $16,400. The median family income in Imperial County was $23,359. 

Statewide, about 5.2 million people, or 16 percent of the population, lived in poverty in 1997, compared to 16.5 percent in 1995. The median family income in California was $39,595 in 1997, compared with $37,005 nationally. 

Farmers in Imperial County, east of San Diego County, have been hard hit in recent years, contributing to an unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent and consistently dropping wages, said El Centro City Councilman Jack Dunnam. 

“As a city and county we’re working as hard as we can with different agencies to get industry in here that may not be farm-related,” Dunnam said. 

City and county officials even recently lobbied the state to locate a new mental health hospital for sex offenders in Imperial County, but the bid failed and an estimated 2,000 jobs went elsewhere, said Wally Leimgruber, chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors. 

“We know we have the lowest per capita income in the state and the highest unemployment,” Leimgruber said. “We’re trying to bring this to the attention of state legislators for any kind of state programs that might be available. ... We’re trying to change it around.” 

Officials in San Mateo County, located in the northern end of Silicon Valley, had mixed reactions to the poverty figures. 

“What the Census figures don’t tell you is that folks living below the poverty level in our county are now living in more and more difficult circumstances,” said Richard Gordon, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. “We have three or four families living in a house together to make ends meet. They may be living in worse conditions than people who live below the poverty level elsewhere.” 

One of the county’s top priorities is to create more affordable housing for the poor and for government and service workers, Gordon said. 

Other California counties with low estimated poverty rates in 1997 include: Marin (7 percent); Placer (7.7 percent); Napa, El Dorado (8.8 percent) and Sonoma (9.1 percent). 

Counties with high poverty rates include: Los Angeles (20.5 percent); Kern (21 percent); Yuba (25.5 percent) and Tulare (27.9) percent. 

The Census Bureau updates its estimates every few years, instead of waiting for the official census every 10 years, because the numbers are tied to federal funding. 

The last report was conducted for 1995 and showed a decrease in poverty as the state’s economy began to prosper. Each estimate is based on a three-year average, meaning the 1997 figure represents the average of 1996-1998. 

The Census Bureau produced the state and county estimates by using its March 1998 Current Population Survey with aggregate data from income tax returns, records on food stamp program participation and 1990 census figures. The median incomes were not adjusted for inflation. 

On the Net: 

U.S. Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/saipe.html