Californians lead the nation in poverty, and Salinas residents are feeling it
Just as 39-year-old Faustino Contreras received a raise from his primary job as a school bus driver, his rent increased, making it increasingly difficult to live in his hometown of Salinas.
"I'm hoping things get better," he said outside of Lucky's on South Main Street. "It depends on that... just to afford to live."
He teaches CPR classes as a second job, but he said he still struggles to live in the area.
As a bus driver, Contreras said he frequently picks up homeless children whose parents cannot afford rent.
And he added that teachers are struggling to even live in the area where they work. Many, he said, move to areas with cheaper rents, like South County. A teacher he knows has a side job at Lucky's.
While he hopes he does not have to move away, Contreras said he may have to leave the area if rent and housing prices continue to rise. He does not know where, though.
"That's the only way to do it, if things don't get better," Contreras said. "People are moving away because they have to, even if it's moving away from family."
Contreras reflects a recent study's findings that most Central Coast workers are struggling with housing and poverty at higher rates than much of the state.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute released an August survey of working Californians broken down by region.
Fifty-six percent of Central Coast workers are struggling with poverty, PRRI found, higher than the state average but tied with the Sacramento Valley and behind only the San Joaquin Valley. Census data found close to one in five Salinas residents are actually in poverty.
This coincides with recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which found that the state leads the nation with the percent of people living in poverty.
On the Central Coast – defined as counties from San Benito to Ventura, including Monterey County – conditions are worse than state averages.
Matt Huerta, housing program manager at the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, said the PRRI study shows the area is at a breaking point.
"Either we’re going to get worse or we’re going to start healing and getting better, and the jury’s out on that," Huerta stated. "But the survey indicates that it’s getting much worse, and it’s difficult how it’s going to turn the other way."
He said, that, in particular, the farm working communities who have called the area home for generations and weathered previous issues are now struggling.
Untenable rent increases, high housing prices, overcrowding, and the mismatch between income and housing prices have made it difficult for residents to afford to live in the area, Huerta added.
Hispanics in the state reported struggling with poverty and housing in addition to concerns over health insurance at higher rates than other populations.
At the 2010 census, nearly six in ten Monterey County residents are Hispanic or Latino.
And more than half of those on the Central Coast say that are worried about affordable housing, second to Los Angeles County.
Zillow's median price of currently listed homes in Salinas is $549,000. Salinas' median household income according to the census is $52,338.
Forty percent of Central Coast workers surveyed said homeownership is the most important goal in their lives, lower than the San Joaquin Valley but much higher than the Bay Area at 28 percent, which has some of the most expensive home prices in the state.
Huerta said a breaking point means disinvestment locally that includes buying a home, investing in education and opening a business.
"Those are some of the biggest investments that people make, so are you going to do that in an area that looks like the future isn't certain?" he asked.
PRRI found just over a third of Central Coast respondents would tell young people to stay in the area for more opportunity, about the same as the rest of the state.
"I don't think California (is) it for me," said Avery Clifton, a 25-year-old from Marina.
She said she feels optimistic about the American dream in California compared to other parts of the world, but she plans to move out of state.
Moving out is an absolute, Clifton added, and "has to do with cost of living. But that's also hard to say because this is where you're going to find opportunity, jobs."
According to the study, just under half of Central Coast workers feel the American dream is harder to achieve in California. Hispanics feel most likely to believe it is achievable in their state.
“Californians working but struggling with poverty face a web of workplace challenges that make meeting basic housing and healthcare needs extraordinarily difficult,” PRRI Research Director Dan Cox said in a press release. “They feel undervalued by their employers and doubt that much can be done to improve their working conditions. And yet, they remain equally optimistic than other workers about achieving the American Dream in California.”
Of the 3,318 people surveyed, the study over-sampled those working and struggling with poverty by close to a third, determined by whether they lived in households that were more than 250 percent below census bureau's poverty measure in each region.
Here is what else PRRI found about Central Coast workers:
- Half reported that they are worried about losing health insurance, the most in the state.
- Only 41 percent of workers said the American dream still holds true.
- More than one in five said they experienced greater financial hardships, higher than the state average. These included helping parents financially, reducing meals to save money, not seeing a doctor, difficulty with rent, using payday lending services, and other hardships.
- Six in 10 residents said that a college education is a smart investment in the future, slightly lower than all Californians but higher than averages among people ages 18 to 29.
- More than one-third reported income changes monthly or seasonally, the highest portion in the state.
- In terms of commuting, 56 percent had round-trip commutes under a half-hour, a higher share than most of the state. Conversely, slightly over one in 10 local commuters had a commute of at least two hours round trip, more than the rest of the state.
- Seventy-two percent said they or someone in their household took a vacation longer than 3 days in the last year. This share is higher than most of the state.
- Over the last year in the workplace, residents reported discrimination or bias at 15 percent on race and 17 percent on gender, while 16 percent were sexually harassed and 7 percent experienced sexual assault. All figures were higher than the state average.
Huerta added that an undercurrent in the study is the region's high immigrant population, especially those in the country illegally, who tend to stay in the shadows due to the current political climate rather than advocating for improving quality of life.
Monterey County leads California with the highest percentage of residents without lawful immigration status.
A farmworker housing study and action plan for Salinas and Pajaro valleys detailed overcrowding in housing and that workers were victim to current policies at all levels of government.
Monterey County is made up of about 82,000 farm workers, and many of the workers are struggling to find affordable housing in Salinas Valley. Photos and clips provided by Amy Wu/The Salinas Californian.
Conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies and California Coalition for Rural Housing and funded in large part by the city of Salinas, the farmworker study found severe overcrowding in residences in the area and called for more than 45,000 units of farmworker housing.
Average annual income for the area's farmworkers is about $25,000.
But while farmworkers and other vulnerable populations are hit hardest, Huerta said the issue impacts the working poor more generally.
"As hard as people work now, and as much as you can pull together resources, it just doesn't seem like it's enough," he said. "And there's no end in sight."
Read the full PRRI study here.
Staff Writer Eduardo Cuevas can be reached at (831) 269-9363 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @eduardomcuevas.