For thousands of struggling low- income families in Sonoma County, the economic turmoil wrought by the worst recession in recent history is anything but over.
Yes, the county has recovered the 30,000 jobs it lost during the 2008 recession, but many of those new jobs are part-time and/or low-wage positions that have done little to bring people out of their newfound poverty.
Among the most jarring statistics to emerge from the recession is the number of families in Sonoma County now on the federal food stamps program known as CalFresh in California.
In 2007, just before the recession began, there were 2,503 local families enrolled in the food stamps program. Last year, four full years after the end of the recession, there were 12,418 local families participating in the program, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
That’s nearly 10,000 more families than before the recession began.
“The reason CalFresh hasn’t decreased is because it’s become the new normal,” said David Goodman, executive director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank. “People fell into need and they remain in need.”
Goodman said the ongoing economic recovery is not bringing relief to low- income residents. Census Bureau estimates show that the number of county residents living in poverty increased 23 percent between 2007 and 2014. One in nine people in Sonoma County, or 55,638 residents, were living at or below the federal poverty level last year, which was $19,790 a year for a family of three and $23,850 for a family of four.
Despite the economic recovery, there are still an estimated 14,877 more Sonoma County residents living in poverty than in 2007, when the local economy peaked and went into recession.
Population growth is not the driving force behind the increase in poverty in Sonoma County. The percentage of the population living below the poverty line or enrolled in the food stamps program has increased since 2007, an indication that hardship is affecting a greater share of the county’s residents.
The economic downturn wiped out 30,000 local jobs in just over two years, sending the unemployment rate soaring to 11.3 percent at its peak in early 2010. It took five years for the county to regain all of the lost jobs. Half of the new jobs were in three sectors: retail stores, hotels and restaurants, and health care and social assistance providers.
Ken Jacobs, chairman of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, emphasized that the largest job growth coming out of the recession has been in low-wage occupations.
“We’ve seen a big change in who makes up the low-wage workforce,” he said. “It’s less likely to be young and more likely to be financial supporters of families. They’re more educated than in the past, with some college education — that’s an important demographic shift.”
Last spring, Jacobs and other researchers at the center published a study that found many Americans who were on government assistance programs were actually struggling working families. Jacobs, lead author of the report titled “The High Cost of Low Wages,” found that “poverty-level wages” cost American taxpayers nearly $153 billion a year in government-assistance spending for working families, including the food stamps program.
The report found that between 2009 and 2011, California added almost a million new families to the food stamps program, 6.8 million households to Medi- Cal and the Child Health Insurance Program and 2.3 million families to the Earned Income Tax Credit. The total federal cost of these programs during that period in California was $23.6 billion and the state cost was $7.3 billion, the report said.