STANISLAUS COUNTY — A just-released demographic snapshot of Stanislaus County shows poverty rates fell in 2012 as income levels stabilized. But county residents continue to lag far behind others in California and nationwide when it comes to earnings and educational attainment.
The U.S. Census Bureaus annual American Community Survey provides thousands of statistics about cities, counties and states. It tracks population trends, including ethnic shifts, economic details and household characteristics.
The best news in the data: Stanislaus poverty rate fell to 20.3 percent in 2012, down from 2011s worst-in-history 23.8 percent. Poverty rates in Modesto (21 percent) and Turlock (16.1 percent) also edged lower last year. (Click here to see 2012 Stanislaus County poverty rates.)
Merced County had rates fall, too, although nearly one-quarter of the population there continued to live in poverty in 2012. That was one of the highest poverty levels in California.
Family incomes, however, rose significantly in Merced County last year, according to the Census Bureau. Its statistics showed a more than 15 percent boost in family incomes, though that didnt seem logical. Family incomes within the city of Merced, for instance, fell by 6 percent during 2012, census figures show.
Unlike the once-a-decade census that contacts virtually everyone, the American Community Survey gathers information from a sampling of residents. Last year, for example, 1,323 Merced County households were surveyed. Their answers were used to provide estimates of what was happening countywide, and theres always a margin of error.
Income statistics for Stanislaus did not change much from 2011 to 2012. Family incomes reportedly rose by only $2 last year, to $50,686.
Families in Modesto fared better. The survey calculated that Modesto family incomes rose 6 percent, jumping $2,941 to a median $51,593.
Things are looking up a little. Its not great, but its better than it was, said Jeff Rowe, the interim CEO of the Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance and director of Alliance Worknet.
Rowe said Stanislaus economy has improved even more this year, as employment rates and wages have increased. Rowe said 3,800 more Stanislaus residents were working this July than in July 2012, which was nearly a 2 percent increase.
Wages also have increased, at least for those Stanislaus Worknet has helped get a job. In 2011, Rowe said the average starting wage was $13.41 an hour, and now its up to an average of $14.74.
Therere still plenty who are struggling and looking for work, Rowe said. But hundreds of Stanislaus residents will start jobs soon at the new Amazon distribution centers in Patterson and Tracy. That should have an impact on our employment rate.
Not everyone is convinced the economy has improved much.
I still see a lot of foreclosures and just as many people applying for job openings, said Rene Hill, a Modesto school employee. She said there continue to be 80 to 100 applicants for every job where she works.
And I still see businesses going under, like Fresh & Easy in Modesto, Hill said. Whenever I drive through downtown, it seems like another business is out.
For some on the low economic rung, like Nathan McCall of Modesto, statistical improvements dont seem real.
I think the homeless population is increasing. I see a lot more homeless wandering around Modesto, said McCall, who is in a sober living program and searching for a job. Theres still hardly any jobs here.
The owner of Brighter Side sandwich shop, however, is convinced the economy has turned the corner. Business is much better than it was in 2008, when everything went down like a rock, Modesto restaurateur Larry Cary said.
Retiree William Pickel, who lives in Ralston Towers, also believes the economy mostly is good. Pickel has a positive outlook on life in general.
I dont put up with much negative talk, said Pickel, who has lived in Modesto 30 years. Always have a good attitude. Thats the most important thing you can have. Ive seen a bad attitude defeat a good person.
But some of the new census statistics are pretty depressing. They show the Northern San Joaquin Valleys education attainment levels lagging far off rates in the state and nation, especially when it comes to college graduates.
Only 16.1 percent of Stanislaus Countys adult population in 2012 had earned a bachelors degree, compared with 30.9 percent for California as a whole. That educational attainment gap has widened in recent years, with the percent of college grads declining in Stanislaus and increasing most everywhere else.
Its a serious and complex problem for the county, said Joseph Sheley, president of California State University, Stanislaus. He said too many of the bright young residents who grew up here went away to college, got their degrees and didnt return because the economy wasnt hospitable here.
The brain drain is always a worry for counties like ours, Sheley lamented. He said the county needs to diversify its economy enough to enable college graduates who grew up here to stay here, get good jobs and become productive.
But even for his university in Turlock, Sheley said placing graduates in jobs has grown increasingly difficult.
Its also getting tougher for local residents to afford college, Sheley said, as education costs rise. He said CSU Stanislaus, nevertheless, has more applicants than it can accommodate: Our demand is over our capacity.
Sheley said more than half of the universitys freshman class this year is Hispanic.
That makes sense, considering Hispanics are the regions fastest-growing ethnic group. In 2012, they edged up to 43 percent of Stanislaus population and more than 56 percent of Merced Countys population, the new demographic statistics show.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2196.