The share of Bay Area residents living below 200 percent of the poverty line decreased steadily from 1980 until hitting a low of 20.6 percent in 2000. Rates have been much more volatile in more recent years, as the Great Recession brought poverty levels to new highs. Notably, the share of Bay Area residents living below 100 percent of the poverty line – our region’s poorest residents – has grown faster than those living below 200 percent of the poverty line.
Since the 1960s, the reduction of poverty in the United States has been a top policy priority, with numerous federal and state social programs crafted to improve the economic conditions of low-income households. Given the high cost of living in major metropolitan areas, we tend to look at families living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line to better understand how many people are struggling to make ends meet. While the Bay Area is a region of relative prosperity compared to the nation as a whole, poverty remains a vexing problem even in an era of economic growth.
Nearly one-third of Sonoma County and Solano County residents lived in households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty limit in 2013. These counties’ poverty rates have not dipped under the regional average since 1980, standing in contrast to the below-average poverty rates of Marin, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Rural and suburban poverty represents a major regional challenge going forward.
The suburbanization of poverty is readily apparent in communities like Antioch, Oakley and Pittsburg, each of which has seen double-digit growth in poverty over the last decade. In stark contrast, San Francisco has actually seen a reduction in its poverty rate since 1980 – making it only county in the region that saw a decline in poverty over that time period.
2013 Poverty Rates for Counties, Cities, and Neighborhoods
With a share of just under 26 percent, the Bay Area ranks second- to-last among top U.S. metro areas for its share of residents below 200 percent of the poverty limit. Despite this strong performance, the region’s high cost of living still presents significant challenges for low-income residents. Yet at the same time, other high-cost regions have much greater poverty challenges. In Miami and Los Angeles, a whopping 40 percent of residents fall within this category – a reflection of significantly lower household incomes.
U.S Census Bureau: Decennial Census
U.S. Census Bureau: American Community Survey
Form S1701 (2005-2013)
Image: Flickr (Creative Commons license), Photographer: Alex Proimos
The U.S. Census Bureau defines a national poverty level (or household income) that varies by household size, number of children in a household, and age of householder. The national poverty level does not vary geographically even though cost of living is different across the United States. For the Bay Area, where cost of living is high and incomes are correspondingly high, an appropriate poverty level is 200% of poverty or twice the national poverty level, consistent with what was used for past equity work at MTC and ABAG. For comparison, however, both the national and 200% poverty levels are presented.
For Vital Signs, the poverty rate is defined as the number of people (including children) living below twice the poverty level divided by the number of people for whom poverty status is determined. Poverty rates do not include unrelated individuals below 15 years old or people who live in the following: institutionalized group quarters, college dormitories, military barracks, and situations without conventional housing. The household income definitions for poverty change each year to reflect inflation. The official poverty definition uses money income before taxes and does not include capital gains or noncash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps). For the national poverty level definitions by year, see: https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/index.html
For an explanation on how the Census Bureau measures poverty, see: https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/measure.html
For the American Community Survey datasets, 1-year data was used for region, county, and metro areas whereas 5-year rolling average data was used for city and census tract.
To be consistent across metropolitan areas, the poverty definition for non-Bay Area metros is twice the national poverty level. Data were not adjusted for varying income and cost of living levels across the metropolitan areas.