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Rich, poor: California’s split personality

A homeless man feeds the birds on an L.A. street. (Photo: Laurin Rinder)

Two recent studies have confirmed it:  In California, poverty exists in the most unlikely places.

First, a Gallup-Healthways State of American Well-Being study lists five California regional areas as among the best places to be in the country.  In the top 20 among the 189 places ranked, Santa Cruz-Watsonville is in third place nationally, San Luis Obispo — Paso Robles was seventh, Santa Barbara – Santa Maria was 12th, Santa Rosa was 17th and Salinas was 19th.

Santa Barbara County had the highest child poverty rate in California: 30.8% of the county’s children were poor (2012–2014 average)

The rankings are based on criteria established by Gallup-Healthways and on 354,473 telephone interviews with U.S. adults across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, conducted from January 2, 2015 to December 30, 2016.

Here are the five factors upon which the Gallup-Healthways researchers based their wellness study:

Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals

Social: Having supportive relationships and love in your life

Financial: Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security

Community: Liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community

Physical: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

If you’re feeling good about California communities after reading so far, brace yourself.  Here’s something from a brand-new study from the Public Policy Institute of California, using the most recent data available:

“Santa Barbara County had the highest child poverty rate in California: 30.8% of the county’s children were poor (2012–2014 average). Rates in Monterey/San Benito (combined, 30.2%) and Los Angeles (29.1%) counties were similarly high.”

“There are two Santa Barbaras — there’s the Santa Barbara City part, with its service industries, and then there is a huge agricultural base in the county.” — M ayor Helene Schneider

How could that be?  Gracious, beautiful Santa Barbara? Monterey?  What about all that “wellness”?

Chalk it up to the nature of the California economy.  If you’re a techie, living in a go-go community of fellow highly paid techies, you’re going to have a lower percentage of child poverty.

But in a place where the economy is made up of old money and tourism, where many residents clean hotel rooms and work in food service, (think Santa Barbara and Monterey) where  the contrast between the haves and the have-nots is greater,  the percentage of children in poverty is bound to be higher.

So even if a place scores well on the Gallup/Healthways study, there is a substrata of residents who are ‘way below the majority — not enough to overcome the overall rating, but enough for the PPIC to dig out the facts of their situation.

There is also the yardstick used by the PPIC to measure poverty in California — its “California Poverty Measure (CPM), a joint research effort by PPIC and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.  The PPIC describes the CPM as a more comprehensive approach to gauging poverty in California because it accounts for the cost of living and a range of family needs and resources, including social safety net benefits.  So the more sophisticated measurement devised by the PPIC and Stanford shows results that differ from official government figures.

“We do have poverty in Santa Barbara,” Mayor Helene Schneider told Capitol Weekly in a telephone interview. “There are two Santa Barbaras — there’s the Santa Barbara City part, with its service industries, and then there is a huge agricultural base in the county.  As far as the county goes, it doesn’t surprise me too much, because we have Montecito (an extremely wealthy community next door to the City of Santa Barbara) and we have Guadalupe, an agricultural community.”

Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley, had a child poverty rate of 18.5 percent, approaching half of Santa Barbara’s nearly 31 percent.

Schneider said that during the recent Great Recession, the Santa Barbara City Council, even in the face of budgetary restraints, refused to cut back on programs designed to benefit low-income youth.

“I am concerned about what’s going on back in Washington with the Affordable Care Act, and what may happen to lower-income people here in Santa Barbara,” she said.

In her state-f-the-city speech March 22, Schneider cited a city estimate that there are now approximately 800 homeless men and women on State Street, the city’s main downtown thoroughfare, down from 1,040 in 2001.

The PPIC findings are startling to many, because conventional wisdom has child poverty highest in the Central Valley.  But the Central Valley has less of a gap between the very wealthy and the very poor, and the cost of living does not approach that of the wealthy Central Coast.  Stanislaus County has a child poverty rate of  21.8; Fresno’s rate is 24.4 and Tulare County’s rate is 26.2

While California had five of the top 20 places in the nation, wonderfulness, like child poverty, was not evenly distributed across the state

El Dorado County had the lowest poverty rate among children, with 13 percent.

Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley, had a child poverty rate of 18.5 percent, approaching half of Santa Barbara’s nearly 31 percent.

Overall, the PPIC study had this to say about child poverty in California. (Again using the latest available figures and its own methodology):

“In 2014, 24.2% of children lived above, but fairly close to, the poverty line (up to one and a half times above it). All told, 47.2% of children in the state were poor or near poor. However, a much lower 5.2% of California’s children were in deep poverty (living in families with less than half the resources needed to make ends meet).

While California had five of the top 20 places in the nation, wonderfulness, like child poverty, was not evenly distributed across the state. Stockton–Lodi was in 166th place, Bakersfield 172nd, and Chico was 183rd of the 189.

And the worst-off place in the country?

Fort Smith, Arkansas, at 189


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