News Column

Census Estimates Show Economic Divisions in Ventura County

Sept. 20, 2012

Tom Kisken

Poverty grew slightly last year in Ventura County, income stayed about flat, and economic walls that separate people by sex, race and geography remained imposing, according to 2011 census data released today.

Estimates delivered annually in the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey show the median household income in Ventura County hovered at $74,623 last year, compared with $74,044 in 2010. Hispanic households in the county earned a median of $54,125 in 2011, compared with $85,054 for non-Hispanic whites and $85,593 for Asian-Americans.

Families led by single women made a midpoint wage of $42,201, compared with $58,078 for single fathers. Women who lived alone made $27,099, more than $14,000 less than men.

Observers said the gaps may be attributed in part to education levels and family responsibilities that could fall more on women than men. They also cited social inequities.

"Discrimination in the workforce is still there," said Lucas Zucker, a researcher with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. "It absolutely affects the family."

The survey includes data on states, counties and cities with a population of at least 65,000. Statistics include average commute time -- 25 minutes in Ventura County -- and that 23 percent of the county's adult population younger than 65 had no health insurance in 2011.

About 11.3 percent of Ventura County residents last year lived in poverty, defined as an income of $23,021 or less for a family of four. About 10.7 percent lived in poverty in 2010, according to the estimates.

"The biggest predictor of whether a family fell into poverty wasn't race or gender," Zucker said. "It was education level."

The poverty rate for people whose education stopped with a high school diploma increased to 12.6 percent in 2011 from 8.7 percent in 2010.

Lack of higher education limits the jobs and income of new immigrants, said Sung Won Sohn, an economist at CSU Channel Islands in Camarillo.

"I think it's also clear that they do catch up," he said, referring to the children and grandchildren of new immigrants. He credited the median income of Asian-Americans -- nearly $86,000, according to the new estimates -- in part to educational attainment.

Others said the data underscores the evaporating middle class. People in the wealthiest 20 percent of households earned 47 percent of the county's total income last year. The poorest 20 percent of households earned 3.59 percent of the county's income. The gap between poor and wealthy was even larger statewide and across the nation.

The roller coaster continued in median incomes for the four county cities in the survey: Thousand Oaks, $96,943; Simi Valley, $88,654; Ventura, $62,971; and Oxnard, $58,090.

"This is what I've been saying for years: Coastal California is becoming more and more divided. Some day it's going to cause social challenges," said economist Bill Watkins, predicting the possibility of rising crime rates and increasing animosity among economic classes.

Watkins, executive director of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, said many of the jobs being lost pay well, while newly created jobs fall in lower-paying sectors. The high cost of living and diminished opportunities mean some middle-class families are moving elsewhere.

"It's just tough to have a career and buy a house and raise a family in a place like Ventura County," he said.

Zucker said the new data suggests that if an economic recovery has begun, it is not being experienced by average families in Ventura County.

He won't get an argument from Emily Ortega, 22, of Camarillo.

"I went to college to be a history teacher," she said in a Ventura courtyard Wednesday, adding that a thin job market turned the would-be educator into an executive assistant. "I work at a small medical company, and I feel very privileged and blessed to have that job."

Laura Alvarez, a hairstylist from Ventura, focused on the gap that separates a woman's pay from a man's. She's said she's not surprised and doesn't expect it to change.

"Maybe in a long time," she said. "Too long."

Source: (c)2012 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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