More Sonoma County residents living in poverty

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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.

Working families on government assistance comprised $13.7 billion, or 58 percent of the federal cost, and $3.7 billion, or 50 percent of the state cost.

For years, advocates for a “living wage” have blasted the current economic recovery as one that is primarily benefiting the wealthiest Americans, while leaving low-income workers in many cases worse off than they were before the recession. The Jacobs report found that between 2003 and 2013, inflation-adjusted wages were either flat or declined for the bottom 70 percent of wage earners.

“That’s why we call this a low-wage recovery,” said Marty Bennett, co-chairman of North Bay Jobs with Justice, which is spearheading a living-wage campaign that would lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour for about 5,500 county-affiliated workers, including nearly 5,000 in-home support workers.

“What it means is that the so-called recovery has not been the rising tide that has lifted all boats,” Bennett said, adding that new income generated by the economic recovery “is not going to wages and benefits for workers.”

For one Santa Rosa parent in her late 20s, who works as a franchise restaurant manager, the economy has yet to recover.

Maria, who asked that only her first name be used because of the stigma associated with food stamps, said she enrolled in CalFresh four years ago when her son was born. Maria, who rents a one-bedroom apartment for her two children for $1,000, said that after paying rent, child care, gas, and laundry, she’s left with maybe $75 a month.

“It just makes me feel like there’s no way of getting ahead,” she said, “At the end of the month, I’m left with pretty much nothing.”

Maria only works part time because the restaurant she works for only allows a limited number of full-time employees. As the restaurant manager, she now makes $13 an hour. She said the CalFresh program, which utilizes a debit-type EBT card, has been extremely helpful to her. But she dreads the stares she often gets at supermarkets.

“They look at me like I’m not doing something correct or not doing enough,” she said.

Luke Reidenbach, policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center in Sacramento, agreed with Jacobs’ finding that low- and mid-wages have remained stagnant. Reidenbach said the slow recovery in the labor market has created greater competition for jobs, relieving employers from the pressure of raising wages.

But he said that if unemployment continues to fall, employers could find themselves in the position where they have to pay more.

“Unemployment is nearing its pre-recession level, so hopefully we would see that soon,” he said.

Reidenbach cited a number of possible theories for why the economic recovery has been so lopsided in favor of high-income earners. These include a decline in organized labor that has left workers with less bargaining power; more frequent boom-and-bust economic cycles that are leading to slower recoveries; and global and international trade and monetary policies that are too focused on restraining inflation at the expense of promoting employment.

The minimum wage, now at $9 in California, is “worth less today than it was in 1968,” when adjusted for inflation, he said, adding that the minimum wage would have to be at $11.80 to be where it was in the late 1960s.

A $15-an-hour minimum wage would be “transformative policy” that would have a dramatic impact on the lives of low-income workers, he said. But Reidenbach said raising the minimum wage alone will not relieve other financial pressures on low-income families.

Reidenbach said a modest increase in the minimum wage could help lift working people out of poverty if it is accompanied by other policies, such as the recently approved statewide earned income tax credit and more aggressive affordable housing opportunities.

With a full-time job that pays $15 an hour, Jamie, a 30-year-old Santa Rosa mother of two who also asked that only her first name be used, said she still is having trouble making ends meet.

“Right now, I have 94 cents. I checked,” she said last week. “My phone bill that I thought processed last week didn’t process until today. I need to figure something out to feed them (her kids) until the next paycheck. I’m not living extravagantly. I pay my rent, I pay my bills and everything that’s left over is for groceries.”

Jamie, who pays $1,200 in rent, sets aside $600 from each bi-weekly check. She doesn’t have cable TV, though she gets a $10 Internet connection for her children through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program for low-income families. Some of her other expenses include $20 to $30 for PG&E, $100 a month for car insurance and a monthly car payment of $100. But rent is her biggest financial drain.

“Maybe more people are finding work, but rents are increasing,” she said. “Even though people are employed, nobody can afford to live on the wages they get in Sonoma County.”

Jamie said she tries her best to be self-sufficient but her kitchen cupboards started to go empty when she lost her CalFresh assistance.

“At my house, I have a loaf of bread, cereal and milk,” she said. “It’s going to be beans and rice for the next couple of days. If worse comes to worst, I will have to ask friends or family to borrow money. … I kind of feel like the system punishes you after you’ve become self-sufficient. I’m going to reapply for food stamps because I need the help.”

At a food pantry in west Santa Rosa last week, Alejandra Lopez, 28, of Santa Rosa picked up a bag of food to help feed her family. The pantry is operated by Friends in Service Here, or F.I.S.H., of Santa Rosa and provides a once-a-month food bag to anyone who needs it. The mother of two said her husband is a farmworker who doesn’t earn a lot of money. This year, her rent was raised from $1,100 to $1,550.

The economic recovery has had little impact on her family, said Lopez, who started going to FISH four months ago.

“Instead of getting better, it’s getting worse,” Lopez said, speaking in Spanish. “Everything is getting more expensive, especially rent.”

Oscar Chavez, assistant director of the county Human Services Department, said Sonoma County’s high rents and low wages are transforming the food stamp program beyond its intended population.

“While at one point it was intended to be a safety net, CalFresh has now become part of what a family depends on to get by in Sonoma County,” Chavez said.

He said the “new reality” facing low-income and middle-income residents requires investment in education and job training, as well as a focus on implementing housing policies that will attract skilled workers to the county, not drive them away.

“We need a variety of housing types — workforce, affordable, low-income,” he said. “We need to act with a real sense of urgency around this.”

News researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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