What’s behind North Bay’s expanding ranks of the working poor
By all accounts, Ivonne Vega, 31, is doing everything she can to keep her household afloat.
The St. Joseph Health Center medical assistant in Santa Rosa works full time on weekdays, cleans offices through the week part time, studies to become a registered nurse and plans to take on more per-diem work in urgent care on the weekends.
With all that, the single mother of three girls finds it hard to make ends meet.
“I’m tired all the time, trying not to get sick. Essential workers need more help. We’re busting our a-- every day. I just don’t take a day off,” she said. When asked about her life, she responded: “This tells me I’m not living, I’m just working.”
Vega is among many others, according to a new study provided by the United Ways of California. The nonprofit developed a formula that uses household cost-benefit statistics to surmise how North Bay residents are doing. The organization ran numbers in Sonoma County for the Business Journal.
Among the findings, the United Way reports almost a third of Sonoma County residents — 28%, or 43,000 families — fall into a population that struggles to make enough to meet basic needs such as housing, child care, transportation and food on the table. They face sagging wages and rising expenses every day, according to the report titled “Real Cost Measure of 2019.” Much of the Sonoma County findings would also apply to other communities in the North Bay, the report concludes.
Other state and federal reports align with these findings.
For working-poor advocates, the fear is conditions will worsen with the ongoing economic decline of middle class households, which are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
Despite sometimes feeling like a hamster on an economic wheel, Vega celebrates little victories. Due to the coronavirus outbreak shutting down schools, her education went online. This means she has more time with family, and her childcare costs are down. That $170-a-month cost piles onto the $1,800 she shells out every 30 days to rent her two-bedroom apartment without utilities.
Then, there are the sporadic bills like the payment of $800 to U.S. Homeland Security for her DACA permit that allows her to remain in the country since her parents are originally from Mexico City. Her status eliminates the chances of receiving government aid, but living here matters more to her. Taxes have also gone up for her.
“Come tax time, I’ll probably be owing (the government). My kids — they get scared every day. I take things day by day and tell my daughters to wake up with a good attitude,” she said.
U.S. research shows the gap between the haves and those who have less widening.
An October Bloomberg-Federal Reserve joint report for the first half of 2020 indicated that 50 of the richest Americans hold $2 trillion, the same amount of wealth as the bottom 165 million people in the population.
California split by more than San Andreas Fault
Even before the pandemic, the United Way study of the state provided a stark look at the huge disparity between classes.
Over one in three households — 3.8 million families in the Golden State — struggle to meet basic needs. The finances of the 37% residing in California’s 58 counties fall below what it takes to run a household.
Depending on where one lives, respondents in the study showed families with toddlers hurting more than those with teenagers. Over half the households with children up to age 5 don’t make ends meet.
Adding to the problem, nearly four in 10 households — 38% — pay more than the recommended 30% housing threshold. Some in the bottom rung spend up to 76%.
“We need to make sure all working families have access to all resources,” said Henry Gascon, United Ways of California program and policy development director.
North Bay not immune
In its survey, the United Way determined the Wine Country environment comes with more pitfalls as an expensive place to live, especially for people of color.
Among the Hispanic population, almost half do not earn enough in Sonoma County to make ends meet. That 48% more than doubles that of white households in Sonoma County.
What does it take to make it?
The United Way formula takes into account several factors that go into a family budget as well as the size of the households and ages of the children. That formula concludes much of the same struggle for families of four in many North Bay communities:
- Santa Rosa households require at least $81,300 a year.
- Petaluma and Rohnert Park households require $91,000.
- Healdsburg and Sonoma households require $95,000.
Over a third of that household income is set aside to keep a roof over the heads of the inhabitants. Here’s a sampling of the situation from local cities: