Census takes picture of San Joaquin Valley in recession

Incomes, poverty fairly steady, but experts think 2009 data will be worse

September 28, 2009 

BA Salvation Army 1

Breanna Cobb, 2, eattng a free meal at the Salvation Army with mother Ann Smith, 20, and with father Jeffrey Cobb, 22,(right) all from Ceres. It's the first time they've eatten at "Salley's". Father, Jeffrey Cobb, is looking for work to make ends meet. September 28, 2009 (BART AH YOU/bahyou@modbee.com)

BART AH YOU — Modesto Bee

Incomes are lower and poverty rates are higher in the Northern San Joaquin Valley than most other places in America.

Those less-than-surprising statistics were revealed today by the U.S. Census Bureau.

What's surprising is the valley's income levels didn't look much worse in 2008 than in previous years.

The just-released 2008 American Community Survey data details what people throughout the nation earned and what percent of them were living in poverty.

Stanislaus County's poverty rate last year was 14.2 percent. While that was 1 percent higher than the national average, poverty in the county has stayed virtually the same for four years.

In 2005, when real estate was booming and jobs were relatively easy to find, Stanislaus' poverty rate was 14.4 percent. Unemployment has risen dramatically since then, and record numbers of homeowners have defaulted on their mortgages.

So why didn't the poverty rate soar?

Plenty of families are suffering, but they're not quite living in poverty, explained Darvin Carpenter, who runs The Salvation Army in Modesto.

"There are not more people living on the street — yet," Carpenter said. "They still have a house to live in."

But Carpenter's nonprofit agency has many more families seeking help for the first time, particularly for things such as money to pay utility bills.

"The difference now is those coming to us had been middle-income families before the husbands or the wives lost their jobs," Carpenter said. "These days, a number of those at our noonday meals are well-dressed. ... (They come eat with us) as a way to help them balance their budgets."

If the economy doesn't improve soon, Carpenter warned, many of those folks may fall below the poverty line.

"People are in survival mode right now," agreed Bill Bassitt, who heads the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance. "There are a lot of people who by hook or by crook, or with the help of family or their savings, have held on."

Bassitt said the region's true poverty rate may be "masked" by residents who have been smart enough to find ways to survive.

"Just wait until next year when the data comes out for what we're living through now," said Jeff Michael, director of the University of the Pacific's Business Forecasting Center. "It will be the 2009 figures when you're going to see the real significant changes."

Michael said the 2008 data showed the impact of the early recession, which primarily affected construction and real estate jobs. But the recession has continued and spread into retail, which Michael said will be apparent when the 2009 income statistics are released.

One of the 2008 statistics may show a new multigenerational housing trend.

Despite the recession, Stanislaus' median family income rose to $58,962 last year, which was 2.5 percent more than 2007. That may be because more people moved back home, thus increasing their family's total income.

"Many of the people we work with are sharing resources," Carpenter explained. "So rather than living alone, some (adult) children have moved back with their parents. Sometimes there are three or four families living together. I know anecdotally that's true."

Here are some other 2008 income statistics for Stanislaus collected by the survey:

Men earned 27 percent more: Men with full-time, year-round jobs earned a median $45,228, while women working that much earned $35,656.

Incomes spread out: Half of all families earned $35,000 to $100,000. Just more than a quarter earned less than $35,000, and nearly a quarter earned $100,000 or more.

Single moms in poverty: About 35 percent of homes with children but no fathers present were in poverty.

Food stamps: Nearly 8 percent of households received food stamps from the government in Stanislaus, compared with 5.5 percent nationwide.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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