Poverty across Southern California declined significantly during the first seven years of the decade, a period marked by a booming economy, gentrifying neighborhoods and soaring housing prices, according to census data released Tuesday.
Bucking a national trend, Los Angeles County's poverty rate dropped notably between 2000 and 2007, the data showed, with the percentage of residents living below the federal poverty level falling from 17.9% in 2000 to 14.7% last year. Similar declines occurred in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. By contrast, the national poverty rate rose slightly during the same period.
The new figures from the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey reflect broad economic and demographic changes occurring in Southern California, analysts say.
"The population is getting older, and older people have higher incomes," said Dowell Myers, a USC professor of policy, planning and development. Also, immigration rates are continuing to decline, and it is the most recent newcomers who tend to have the highest poverty rates, he said.
"We have an immigrant population that is settling in, and that is raising their incomes," he added.
The figures do not reflect the effect of the sharp economic downturn that took hold this year, and researchers said it is unclear whether declines in poverty will continue in 2008.
For Brigitte Erickson, the first half of this decade was marked by comfortable personal finances that allowed her a nice apartment, dinners at restaurants and other entertainment. But two years ago, the 58-year-old Azusa woman's circumstances began to change. A big rent increase forced her to move out of her Arcadia apartment, and the rising cost of gas and other consumer goods prompted her to go out less often. "My only luxury now is having cable TV," said Erickson, who works in the women's clothing business. "I never go anywhere."
And some advocates for the poor argue that the declining poverty numbers don't tell the whole story.
For example, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the census survey shows that despite the drop in the poverty level, the number of workers in Los Angeles County who earn less than $25,000, 30% of the full-time workforce, has dropped only slightly from 2006. "We have a lot of low-wage jobs," said Jessica Goodheart, research director for the alliance. "It impacts every aspect of our civic life."
Falling poverty rates also have not necessarily meant rising household incomes, the census found.
Median household incomes have risen in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. But in the region's two more affluent counties, Ventura and Orange, median incomes declined when adjusted for inflation. The median income in Ventura and Orange counties -- the point at which half of households earn more and half earn less -- is about $73,000, while in the other counties the figure is about a third lower.
Uneven trends are also affecting families at the middle and bottom of the economic ladder, where median incomes fell from 2006 to 2007, according to a study by the California Budget Project, a nonpartisan research group.
"It took six years for low- and middle-income Californians to regain ground lost from the 2001 recession. But those gains were too little, too late," said Jean Ross, the research group's executive director.
Marianne Haver Hill, executive director of MEND, the largest charitable group in the San Fernando Valley, said the decrease in poverty rates also may be a product of federal efforts to encourage welfare recipients to find jobs. But whatever gains have been made are rapidly being reversed for many families now that the economy is slipping, she said.
"We have families renting and living in unfinished garages for $500 to $600 a month, and even that's a huge chunk of their income, let alone the increased cost of food and" transportation, she said.
Andres Cruz used to put in 50 hours per week at $12 per hour building granite and marble countertops for new and remodeled homes. For added income, he would peddle Popsicles for a few hours on weekends at MacArthur Park. But in January, the 48-year-old Westlake resident was laid off.
Now, he competes against more than a dozen other Popsicle vendors at the park, making $40 on a good afternoon. A second job at $8 per hour maintaining a coin laundry helps, but overall he takes in about half his previous pay. "I'm working a lot more and making a lot less," Cruz said.
The census data also show that child poverty remains a major problem in Los Angeles County. More than 1 in 5 residents younger than 18 were living below the poverty line in 2007, which is about $21,000 for a family of four. The county rate did not change significantly from the year before, according to Tuesday's report.
Now, job losses, housing problems and the rising cost of goods and services are weighing heavily on the economic tier above the poverty line, social service agencies said.