As the local economy improves, the poor are left behind

12/29/2013 12:00 AM

12/29/2013 12:01 PM

Local unemployment is down. The Sacramento economy is slowly growing. But Sacramento’s poorest residents are reaping few of the rewards.

Sacramento-area households making less than $23,000 – the bottom-earning fifth – saw their inflation-adjusted incomes plunge, on average, 17 percent from the end of the recession in 2009 to 2012, new census figures show. And that’s on top of a 10 percent income drop during the recession between 2007 and 2009.

Most other Sacramentans also saw incomes fall, though not as quickly, both during and after the recession. The exception: those at the very top. Local households making more than $193,000 – the top-earning 5 percent – saw their annual incomes rise slightly from 2009 to 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to the census figures.

“The vast majority of Sacramentans, year by year, have seen their incomes decline – and not just by a little bit,” said Sasha Abramsky, an instructor at UC Davis and author of “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives.”

As the region’s poor lose income, the gap between them and everyone else grows. The census figures show that the highest-earning 20 percent of households scooped up half the region's income last year. And the bottom 20 percent squeaked by with 3 percent.

The census numbers include income from jobs, Social Security, retirement, welfare, unemployment and rent but exclude money from the sale of stock and noncash income like food stamps.

Several aid organizations say the census figures represent a stubborn decline for the local poor: diminished wages, layoffs, high rents and lost homes.

“We are seeing 100 mothers and children a day,” said Michelle Steeb, executive director at St. John’s Shelter in Sacramento, adding that hundreds more are waiting for a spot.

John Foley, executive director of Sacramento Self-Help Housing, said his organization continues to take hundreds of phone calls each month from desperate residents – even as the foreclosure crisis has faded. “We’re seeing a lot of folks in really tight circumstances,” he said.

The downward spiral

Those new to economic despair have trouble finding their way out. Sandra Manny, 49, for example, said she lost her rental home in Woodland about a month ago. She’s disabled and receives an $841 Social Security check each month. Her rent was $641 a month.

Before, Manny said she could earn some money on the side by teaching music. Without a home, she has no place to host lessons.

At one point in her recent past, Manny lived with her mother. But today her mom stays at a rest home in Grass Valley, and Manny has no way to see her, let alone stay with her.

“I am in a mess,” she said on Christmas Eve. “I have nothing.”

Loaves & Fishes, the homeless services center near downtown helping Manny and others, served 25,000 free breakfasts through October of this year, roughly the same number served during a similar period last year and up sharply from 2011, officials there said.

The center has also provided more free showers – about 11,000 – to clients through October than during similar periods of 2011 and 2012.

“These numbers are what you might expect during a recession,” said Joan Burke, advocacy director for Loaves & Fishes. “They have stayed up.”

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