County still poorest in California

January 29, 2002|By JENNIFER SARANOW, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON — Imperial County was the poorest county in California in 1998, the latest year for which U.S. Census Bureau figures are broken down by county.

The numbers serve as a barometer for how much federal education money the county could receive in upcoming years.

Imperial County was estimated to have 43,849 people, or 31.9 percent of its population in poverty, compared with 41,065, or 30.3 percent in 1997. Percentage figures for both years were the highest in the state.

For California as a whole, 14.9 percent of the population was estimated to be below the poverty level in 1998, compared with 16 percent in 1997.

Median household income in Imperial County was also the lowest in the state for 1998 and 1997, $24,430 and $23,359 respectively. Median household income for California as a whole in 1998 was $41,003 and $39,595 in 1997.


Though the reasons behind Imperial County's continued poverty are complex, the low education level of the area's population is the main reason, said Kimberly Collins, director of the California Center for Border and Regional Economic Studies at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus.

"A lot of it has to do with education, it being one of the great equalizers in economic development," she said. "Until you have a stronger educated population, you are always going to be behind in per capita income and have high poverty rates. If you educate people, the level of jobs they can receive and the amount of money they can bring into the economy increases."

A main objective behind the Census Bureau's breakdown of poverty level by county, and later by school district, is to help the Department of Education allocate federal funds for school districts according to poverty level.

Thus, the census breaks down county poverty by age groups. In 1998, for the second year in a row, Imperial County also had the highest percentage of poor children under 18 at 21,639, or 44 percent. These figures are only a fraction above the 1997 number, 21,408, or 43.8 percent. Both compare with state levels of 22.8 percent in 1998 and 24.6 percent in 1997.

Specific data on the amount of money received by Imperial County from the federal government because of the figures was not available, but Damon Smith, chief business officer at the Imperial County Office of Education, said the process by which the county receives federal money is not as simple as merely looking to see which county has the highest percentage of poverty.

"It's a complicated, tangled web," Smith said. "Certainly there is funding coming in based upon the poverty level, but it's all relative. If we're up 5 percent and everyone else is too, we don't get a bigger piece of the cake."

Ann Capela, chief executive officer of the Imperial County government, said other reasons behind the county's consistently high poverty level have to do with population trends and the common minimum wage level of employment.

Congressmen here said they are aware of the figures and have taken actions to reduce Imperial County's poverty level by creating more jobs.

For example, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, who represents Imperial County, said "poverty has been a consistent problem we've handled and we've tried to solve it by promoting projects that create jobs in Imperial County."

The spokesman, Mike Harrison, cited as examples the new beef-processing facility in Brawley that recently created several hundred jobs and allocation of federal transportation funds to build a new bus maintenance facility.

He said other proposals include sugar cane growing and a cane processing plant as a means of creating ethanol and construction of a low-security federal detention facility in El Centro for illegal immigrants.

Rep. Bob Filner, who if re-elected would represent Imperial County next year under redrawn district lines, said, "It's a very distressing and challenging statistic and what I'm doing is trying to work out a whole economic agenda that the county, the cities, the federal government and the state can all work together on."

He proposed looking into obtaining grant programs for economic development, education, infrastructure and health. Collins pointed out that job creation would not be enough on its own to lower Imperial County's poverty rate.

"You have to look at what type of jobs are being created," she said. "There are really good projects going on such as the beef-processing plant, but most of the employees are being paid low wages I believe, from minimum wage to highs of $12 an hour."

She pointed out while the rest of the state appears to be on an upward track in terms of poverty, "we're just staying the same and a lot of it has to do with education."

The census figures are based on a population survey, records of food stamp recipients, income tax returns and 1990 census figures. The county with the highest estimated poverty rate in the United States in 1998 was Starr County, Texas, with an estimated poverty rate of 43.8 percent. Data by county for 2000 will not be released until next year.

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