SAN FRANCISCO — California appears to be a land of haves and have-nots, with above-average median household incomes but more children living in poverty.
The figures released Monday also show that California has a higher percentage of families on public assistance.
The information was gathered as part of a separate national sampling of 700,000 households. Called the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey, it reached residents in 32 of the state’s 58 counties.
The median household income in California was $46,499, about 12 percent higher than the national average of $41,343. And 20 percent of children lived in poverty, compared with 17 percent nationwide.
The government considers a family of four poor if it makes about $17,000 or less annually.
Across the state, 14 percent of people were poor compared to 13 percent nationally, 11 percent of families were poor compared to 10 percent nationally and 19 percent of families received public assistance compared to 17 percent nationally.
California is a state of “enormous extremes,” said Dara Schur, a lawyer with the nonprofit Western Center on Law and Poverty, which provides legal assistance.
“We have very wealthy communities on one hand and then people living in poverty on the other,” Schur said. “If we don’t find a way to make it liveable for people of all economic sectors, it’s going to be disastrous for people at all levels.”
Schur cited national and state tax policies which she said reward the wealthy, and California lags behind other states in providing housing subsidies and assistance to the poor.
Ted Gibson, a state Finance Department economist, says another contributor to the income gap is immigration; an estimated 25.9 of California’s population is foreign-born, higher than any other state.
“I think you have to look at the fact that we have a higher percentage of immigrants than any state in the union,” Gibson said. “And initially, when immigrants first arrive they tend to have lower incomes.”
Rent is often the biggest expense for the poor in California. About 21 percent of renters here pay at least half their income for housing, heat and water. Only in New York and Florida do more tenants pay that much.
August Alimorong, 24, knows how hard it is to get ahead in California. The Filipino immigrant said he brings home $972 a month working at a San Francisco sandwich shop. He shares an apartment with several friends and cooks rice at home to save money to send home to his family.
“I use the bus now, but I’m hoping to save so someday I can own a car,” Alimorong said.
“The people I represent everyday – I don’t see how they even afford food,” said Jonathan Milder, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County.
Milder’s clients include an immigrant family of three in Lompoc whose landlord increased rent 50 percent from $500 to $750 in one month. The father makes $2,000 a month at a garage. Tenants in their building were told to pay up or get out, in violation of a new state law requiring two months’ notice for rent hikes of more than 10 percent.
Miller is trying to buy the families more time.
“They end up cutting corners where they can,” he said. “They don’t have car insurance or medical coverage and they aren’t going out to dinner like me and you. They have to get assistance for their children’s lunches at school.”
Children may suffer most from the gap between rich and poor, said Amy Dominguez-Arms, vice president of Children NOW in Oakland.
“Poverty affects the likelihood they’ll grow up healthy, be able to succeed, do well in school and live in safe housing,” she said.
In California’s schools, 26 percent of children qualified to receive free or reduced price school meals in the last year, compared with only 22.8 percent nationwide.
The survey also showed a gender gap among California workers, with males having a median income of $29,886 in 2000 – about 46 percent higher than the $20,527 median income for women.
However, the salary gap wouldn’t be this extreme if the Census had surveyed similar occupations among men and women, said Deborah Reed, an economist with the Public Policy Institute of California, a San Francisco-based think tank.
Women also often work fewer hours than men, and tend to work in lower paying occupations, she said.
“Once we adjust for the hours worked and the occupations, it would be much more equal,” she said.
Among the elderly, poverty was not as rampant. Only 9 percent of those 65 and older lived below the poverty line, compared to 11 percent nationally.
But Gibson said California seniors may appear to be faring well because the state has a relatively small elderly population. That’s because elderly people can sell their homes for a high return in California and use the cash to retire in more affordable states.
On the Internet:
Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara Co. — http://www.fsacares.org
CA Dept. of Finance — http://www.dof.ca.gov/