Californians used to envy residents of our beautiful wine- and wealth-drenched Central Coast. Now we have reason to pity them.
Last summer’s Soberanes Fire burned a vast swath around Big Sur for 83 days, fouling the region’s air and becoming the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history. Central Coast communities suffered some of the most severe water shortages in the state during the drought. And when this winter’s rains came, the Central Coast was hit with landslides and the failure of a vital bridge.
Then there’s this: A new report from the Public Policy Institute of California shows the Central Coast is California’s capital of child poverty. Santa Barbara County, of all places, had the state’s highest poverty rate for young children (30.8 percent). Monterey and San Benito counties had the second highest.
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You may be surprised, believing that California poverty is a problem of the Central Valley and Inland Empire. But the geography of poverty has been flipped by coastal prosperity itself.
There are more advanced methods of measuring poverty, accounting for differences in the cost of living and the use of safety-net benefits across regions. The Central Coast’s very high cost of living leaves even people who earn well above the traditional poverty line quite poor.
Consider, for example, the poorer person living in Santa Barbara who considers moving to Tulare. In the Central Valley, the cost of living would be lower. But you’d be less likely to be working, and you’d be making relatively less when you work, which would leave you relying more on social services to support your family.
In Santa Barbara, you’d be more likely to get a job that pays more than you’d make in the Valley. But you’ll still be well short of what you need to cover housing and the higher cost of living. And your higher income might make you ineligible for safety net programs.
“In the Central Coast counties, cost of living is higher and social safety net receipt is lower,” says PPIC research fellow and labor economist Sarah Bohn. “So both factors are driving up poverty rates there, relatively speaking.”
The Central Coast’s predicament contributes to an updated picture of a state in which poverty and wealth are neighbors. Most poor children in California live in families with at least one working adult. And even as California’s job growth leads the nation, working people are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living. Child poverty rates are still substantially higher than before the Great Recession.
And poorer families don’t have enough help. Eligibility for social programs is still tied to a federal poverty line – $20,090 for a family of three – that lags reality. In Santa Barbara County, the California poverty threshold, which varies for regional costs, is $26,492 for a family of three; the self-sufficiency standard – the amount to cover basic needs – is $59,000 a year for a single parent with two children. Such figures show why poverty programs don’t have much impact in expensive places.
This should trigger three responses. First, California’s wealthier jurisdictions must get better at reaching those eligible for programs. Second, more programs should be adjusted to make eligibility easier and benefits more generous in costlier regions. Third, it’s time to challenge limits on housing construction more aggressively. The coastal NIMBYs who claim they’re “preserving community character” are making their poor neighbors poorer.
None of these changes will come quickly. In the meantime, say a prayer for the kids of the Central Coast.
Joe Mathews is California and innovation editor of Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.