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Steep Poverty: The Shame of Santa Barbara

Five years ago, the Board of Supervisors rolled out a study that showed the widespread extent of poverty in Santa Barbara County, heralding the report as an important new instrument to guide public policy.

“The silver lining,” said then-supervisor Salud Carbajal, “is that this provides us a tool to be more strategic in better serving that population in future years.”

These days, Salud is off being strategic in Washington, and poverty in Santa Barbara County has only grown worse.

In fact, S.B. now ranks third among California’s 58 counties in its rate of poverty, according to just-released, deep-dive data on poverty in the state by the influential Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

In partnership with Stanford University’s Center on Poverty, PPIC has produced the gold-standard study of economic misery in the not-so-Golden State. The researchers track economic factors through the California Poverty Measure, combining federal census data with crucial, state-specific cost-of-living factors such as California’s high housing costs.

By the numbers. The new report shows that one in five Californians — 19.4 percent, or about 7.4 million men, women, and children — live in poverty, defined as lacking adequate resources to meet basic economic needs, calculated in 2016 dollars as $31,000 per year for a family of four.

In Santa Barbara County, however, nearly one in four residents — 23 percent — fall below the poverty threshold. This is a greater proportion of poor people than in any other county except for L.A.(24.3 percent) and Santa Cruz (23.8 percent).

For children younger than 18, local numbers look even worse.

Statewide, PPIC reports, 21.3 percent of children — about 1.9 million — lived in poverty as of 2016, the most recent year for which final statistics are available.

In Santa Barbara, meanwhile, child poverty is substantially worse, with 26.3 percent below the line; this also is the third-worst rate in the state, topped again only by L.A.(27.8 percent) and Santa Cruz (27.2 percent).

“In part due to high housing costs on the coast, we do mostly find higher poverty rates in coastal counties than official poverty estimates would lead us to believe,” Caroline Danielson, policy director and senior fellow at PPIC, told us.

Take that, Paul Ryan. Among ethnic groups, Latinos statewide remain disproportionately poor, composing 39.2 percent of the population — but 52.8 percent of Californians living in poverty.

Despite familiar right-wing tropes about poor people being lazy welfare chiselers, the statewide research shows that “most poor families are working.”

As of 2016, 83.5 percent of poor children lived in a family with at least one working adult. Overall, 79.5 percent of poor Californians were in a family in which at least one adult worked — 46 percent full-time for the entire year and 33.4 percent part-time or seasonally.

Another key finding: Poverty rates are closely correlated to education levels.

Only 8.4 percent of adults between 25 and 64 who have a college degree live in poverty — compared with 34.5 percent of those without a high school diploma.

And more than half of children in families without an adult who completed high school — 53 percent — live in poverty; this compares with just 8 percent of kids in a family with at least one adult with a college degree.

At a time when the safety net is under broad attack in Washington, PPIC data shows that federal and state social welfare programs — from food and housing assistance to nutrition and tax credits — prevent several million more Californians from falling below the poverty line — nearly 8 percent of the overall population, including an additional 1.3 million children.

What’s next? The economic, social, and political underpinnings of poverty, of course, are enormously complex, if not intractable.

For nearly two years, a statewide poverty task force commissioned by the Legislature has studied the issue, with a report of findings and policy recommendations due in November.

Information about the task force, including upcoming meetings, is available on the state Department of Social Services website. The PPIC report may be found here.


A version of this post was published by the Santa Barbara Independent.

mages: "End Poverty Now" by fayeshka,; Charts from PPIC; Caroline Danielson; Shutterstock; "Poverty" by Dorothy Rutka, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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