Incomes plummeted 8 percent and poverty rates jumped 20 percent last year in Stanislaus County, Census Bureau statistics released Tuesday show.
Stanislaus' per capita income fell to $20,430 in 2009, which was significantly less than the county's income levels in 2008, 2007 or 2006.
The American Community Survey statistics show falling incomes throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Median family incomes dropped to just $55,187 in Stanislaus, several thousand dollars lower than what they were in 2008 or 2007.
Stanislaus' poverty rate also hit what may be a modern high: 17 percent of residents -- about one in six -- lived below the poverty line in 2009. The county's poverty rate ranged from 12.9 percent to 14.5 percent from 2002 to 2008, so last year's increase was dramatic.
Gabriella Mendoza knows firsthand how hard it is for Stanislaus' poor residents to make ends meet. She and her three children survive on $1,200 per month from various social services.
"We're barely coping," said Mendoza, 22, a high school graduate who has lived her whole life in Modesto. After paying $850 per month rent and for utilities, there's little left. "It's kind of embarrassing having to go to The Salvation Army and Inter-Faith Ministries for help. But there have been times we've run out of food. It's very hard."
Defining poverty isn't easy, either. The Census Bureau uses a set of income thresholds that vary by family size and composition to detect who is classified as living "below the poverty level."
Rising poverty and falling incomes result, in part, because of scarce jobs. Stanislaus' unemployment rate this summer hovered around 17 percent.
"I'm desperate to get a job," Mendoza said. "I'm willing to do anything, but no one will give me a chance because I don't have any experience."
Even those with experience are struggling.
"I'm on my way to the unemployment office right now to try to get an extension (in benefits)," said Frank Concepcion, 50, of Modesto. He was a car salesman for 15 years before losing his job 18 months ago. He hasn't found work since. "The only thing to do is hang in there and stay in prayer," he said.
But when people lose jobs, they lose more than income.
"They lose their health insurance when they get laid off, and that affects things all the way (through the community)," said dental office worker Jeanne Giller, 52, of Denair. She said these days fewer dental patients visit her Modesto office, which hurts its bottom line.
The new census data confirmed the number of residents without health insurance rose last year to 18.1 percent in Stanislaus County and 19.4 percent in Modesto. Nationwide, by comparison, 15.1 percent of residents were without health insurance in 2009.
This region demographically differs from the rest of the country in many ways.
Valley residents tend to be younger and less educated. There is a far higher percentage of foreign-born residents here than elsewhere in the United States, and many more people here speak a language other than English when at home.
The educational attainment statistics perhaps are the most troubling.
Only 74.4 percent of Stanislaus' adults have graduated from high school, compared with 85.3 percent of adults nationwide.
The difference is even more dramatic when it comes to college education. Only 16.3 percent of adults in Stanislaus hold bachelor's degrees, compared with 27.9 percent nationwide.
While Stanislaus' education levels always have been lower than the national average, the gap widened during the past decade. Adults elsewhere in the country expanded their formal education at a significantly faster pace than those in this county.
Ethnic and language diversity also distinguish this region from the rest of the country. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. residents are white non-Hispanics, but that's true for less than half of Stanislaus' residents.
The Hispanic population has been growing faster here than in the nation as a whole.
Hispanics made up 40.3 percent of Stanislaus County's population in 2009, compared with 31.7 percent in 2000. Nationwide, Hispanics last year made up 15.8 percent of the population, compared with 12.5 percent in 2000.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2196.