Poverty pervasive in Lake County

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LUCERNE — It’s a sunny Tuesday morning in Lake County and Yvonne Cox, a former exotic snake dancer and tattoo artist, is handing out bags of groceries from the back of a converted gas station on Highway 20, where she also sells motorcycles and secondhand items.

Her food cupboard clients are people who are living on the financial edge in a county where 1 in 4 out of 63,860 residents lives in poverty.

“I didn’t realize how much poverty there was till I moved here” 15 years ago, Cox said.

Lake County long has been near the bottom of the state’s financial rankings, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, and a recent report published in USA Today rated it as the poorest. The ranking was determined by reviewing census data and labor and educational statistics.

According to the Census Bureau, 25 percent of Lake County’s population was living in poverty from 2009 through 2013, making it the fourth-poorest county in the state. Only Fresno, Merced and Tulare counties had higher poverty rates. Sonoma County was at 11.9 percent, while Mendocino County’s poverty rate was at 20 percent. The current federal poverty line is $11,770 for one person and $24,250 for a family of four.

It was unclear why the Census Bureau rating is different from the USA Today report, which was researched and written by online content provider 24-7 Wall Street. Emails seeking clarification about the data from 24-7 Wall Street did not receive responses.

While there may be questions about Lake County’s exact poverty ranking, it’s clear many residents are barely scraping by, a chronic problem that has been attributed to a variety of factors that include a shortage of good-paying jobs, low educational achievement, a high number of retirees and disabled people with fixed incomes, and a rural, isolated geography that deters business development.

Cox decided to help some of the needy people in her community 12 years ago, after she found a man eating food out of her garbage can. She started handing out bag lunches and later formed a nonprofit corporation that depends on local contributions to feed the people who come by her pantry, which is open two mornings a week. Cox said she serves between 15 and 50 people each of those days, with the highest volume at the end of the month when people’s money runs out.

Area churches, senior centers and other agencies also give away food several times a month. The Lucerne Senior Center reported it provides groceries to between 15 and 30 families each Friday. The food pantry, operated in Clearlake by North Coast Opportunities, feeds between 100 and 150 households twice monthly, said Tammy Alakszay, coordinator of the Lake County Community Action & Volunteer Network.

Most of the people who stopped by Cox’s pantry last week had somewhere to live and some sort of income but needed help stretching their food budgets.

“This helps me survive,” said Colin O’Gallagher, 28, who is on disability for what he described as “mental problems” and lives with family.

William Galletti, 57, is on disability for a back injury he suffered on a construction job 20 years ago. He lives with the mother of his two youngest children, ages 1 and 2. She also receives disability benefits and food stamps for their children, he said.

O’Gallagher and Galletti are among the estimated 14,378 Lake County residents — almost 23 percent of the population — who are disabled, compared with 10.6 percent statewide, 11.5 percent in Sonoma County and 16.7 percent in Mendocino County, according to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau survey. County and social services officials say people on disability are likely drawn to Lake County for its relatively low cost of living.

Disabilty payments typically are about $800 a month.

Another of Cox’s clients, Joe Dominguez, 62, gets by washing windows, doing handyman work and being a caregiver for his disabled roommate.

For those able and willing to work, jobs are hard to come by in Lake County, said brothers David Carter, 26, and Joey King, 24.

One works in a secondhand store and the other just got a job at a pizza parlor but had yet to get a paycheck. They were picking up groceries at Cox’s pantry to fill the gap.

Carter said it took him almost two years to find a job after moving back to Lake County from Texas.

Lake County’s unemployment rate has been improving, along with the rest of the state, but its December rate, 9.5 percent, remained well above the state’s 6.7 percent overall average. Sonoma County’s rate was 4.7 percent and Mendocino County’s was 6.2 percent.

Most of the county’s jobs are service-related, including education, health care, social assistance and retail, according to census data.

The county is short on better-paying industrial and technology jobs. Only 1.2 percent of Lake County jobs in 2013 related to the information business and 4.2 percent were in manufacturing, according to census data.

Manufacturing businesses tend to shy away from isolated areas like Lake County because the costs of transporting components in and goods out to market are higher, said Robert Eyler, professor of economics at Sonoma State University and director of its Center for Regional Economic Analysis.

“Logistics and transportation are key to providing support to businesses,” Eyler said.

A lack of good-paying jobs isn’t Lake County’s only employment problem, said county Supervisor Tony Farrington. He said local employers have complained that they’ve had trouble finding people who can and want to work and who can pass drug tests.

A Lakeport grocery store recently posted on Facebook that it hired three new people but none of them showed up for their first day of work, he said.

“We find a lot of people don’t want to work,” Farrington said.

Others lack the education necessary for most better-paying jobs. While Lake County’s high school completion rate is above the statewide average, its college completion rate is low. Only 16.2 percent of residents over the age of 25 had obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to a census survey. Statewide, the figure was almost 31 percent.

Education level is considered a significant factor in poverty levels.

Farrington said Lake County loses many of its younger, more ambitious residents who go away to college and never come back.

That likely contributes to Lake County’s high percentage of older people — almost 20 percent are over the age of 65, according to census data. Sonoma County’s over-65 population is estimated at almost 14 percent and Mendocino County’s is almost 17 percent.

Retirees, disabled people and others on fixed and low incomes are attracted to Lake County because it’s beautiful, has clean air and is affordable, Farrington said. The median price of a home averaged $183,600 from 2009 to 2013 — half the statewide average, according to census data.

That apparently has enabled more people to own their own homes. The percentage of people who owned homes in Lake County during that period was just under 63 percent, above the statewide average of 55 percent. In Sonoma County, 60 percent own homes and in Mendocino County, just over 58 percent do.

Rents also are relatively inexpensive. Some of Cox’s food pantry clients are paying as little as $500 a month for a two-bedroom home in Lucerne.

Because of its lower cost of living, Farrington and other county officials believe Lake County’s poverty ranking is probably inflated.

But they concede it has economic problems, and they are searching for ways to make the county more attractive to tourists and increase jobs and educational opportunities.

County officials are working on making improvements to and around Clear Lake, the county’s central tourist attraction. Improvements include wetlands restoration projects and the creation of new parks, promenades and hiking trails.

County officials also have recruited a private college that offers bachelor’s degrees to open a campus in Lucerne and are working with an economic development committee and community members to plan ways to increase business and job opportunities.

“The county of Lake will continue to move forward to improve our community. We may be surprised by the recent USA Today article but are certain the next five years will show an improved economic picture in Lake County,” said County Administrative Officer Matt Perry.

News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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