CENSUS: Highest percentage of children in poverty since recession began in 2007

North County Times, 9/22/11 | Read the original article |

The persistently weak economic recovery left more children in poverty in San Diego and Riverside counties in 2010 than any year since the economy began its slide in 2007, according to data released by the U.S. Census on Thursday.

Children are in poverty at a higher rate than the rest of the population, in part because they are a major expense to their parents, analysts said. But the proportion of people earning below the federal poverty line, defined as $22,050 a year for a family of four, has also grown to four-year highs, according to the American Community Survey conducted by the census.

In San Diego County, 137,287 of all children, or 19.2 percent, lived in households earning less than federal poverty limits in 2010, compared with 14.8 percent for the county as a whole, the survey said.

In Riverside County, 144,565 children, or 23.5 percent of the county’s under-18 population, fell into that category, compared with 16.3 percent of the population as a whole, the survey said.

Escondido had the highest percentage of children in poverty in North County, at 24.8 percent, while in Southwest County, Temecula had 18.5 percent of its children living in poverty.

“It’s harder to make ends meet when you have more dependents,” said Corinne Wilson, research and policy lead for the Center on Policy Initiatives. “It’s easier for someone to make ends meet if they’re living off the money they earn, but then you add another human being who doesn’t work, like a kid, it’s going to be easier to be in poverty.”

The American Community Survey is an annual survey of cities and places with populations of 65,000 or more. Because it’s a sample and not a complete count, it has margins of error. For the counties, those margins are small —- plus or minus 0.7 percent for San Diego County and plus or minus 0.8 percent for Riverside County. But for any local city except for San Diego, the margins of error are quite large, sometimes as high as 8 percent.

Despite the potential for variance, the rising percentage of children living with economic stress was considered high by most observers.

Children cost money to feed and clothe, and they make finding work difficult for women, who are typically the primary caretakers.

“Having a child —- I love having my son —- made it harder,” said Meri Malone, 33, of Oceanside. “I had to go looking somewhere for a sitter, which meant extra money.”

Malone’s boyfriend, Dave, who is also her 2-year-old’s father, had a successful business as an electrical subcontractor to Circuit City for 10 years. When the electronics retailer folded in 2009, it owed him $300,000, Malone said.

Now, he is an underemployed electrician who must take small jobs to bring in money, and the couple need food stamps to eat.

Malone, who has worked at jobs from florist to tattoo artist, has been trying for months to find paying work.

“Life has been hard,” she said.

Nearly every city in the region saw its overall poverty rate rise in 2010, according to the survey. Escondido had the highest rate, with 20.5 percent of its 141,681 residents in households earning less than federal poverty limits, the city’s highest percentage in four years. Temecula had 14 percent of its people living below the poverty line.

“The recession is the great unwinding from a housing boom,” said Erik Bruvold, president of the National University System Institute for Policy Research. “It has been painful, and the frustrating and unfortunate part is, it’s likely to remain such, perhaps for an extended period of time.”

In the 2000s, a housing boom propelled prices into the stratosphere, which drove homebuilders into a construction frenzy in North San Diego and Southwest Riverside counties. This created a corresponding boom for construction workers and real estate professionals. New neighborhoods meant new demand for retail, and rising sales and property taxes kept city coffers full.

When the housing market collapsed in 2007, anyone in the building trades or real estate had to scramble, and many found themselves unemployed for years.

The recession officially ended in 2009, but the recovery has been weak.

“Overall, the economy in 2009 and 2010 just added much fewer jobs,” Bruvold said. “More importantly, one of the things you’ve seen is underemployment: People may be working, but they may be working fewer hours, or they’re taking jobs that result in a significant cut in pay. All of those things result in an increase in the number of families living below the poverty line.”

Peter Lachance of Escondido has been feeling that pain. He installed wood and linoleum flooring full time for years through the boom. He was laid off three years ago, and he’s been doing short-term jobs ever since.

“I’ve had a hard time finding a job because of my age,” said Lachance, 61. “All those years in the trade, I thought they’d count for something. They (employers) just want a strong guy who’ll work for less money. I’m bitter about it. I don’t mean to be, but I’m bitter about it.”