Census data shows wealth and poverty of California cities

Light traffic flows on the Interstate 405 on July 17, 2011 in Los Angeles, Calif. A quick trip up and down the state will show you some of the nation's richest and poorest cities.

This week the Census Bureau released its American Community Survey results for 2011 and the data includes income and poverty rates across all 50 states and major metropolitan areas.

What? You're wondering why you should care?

Well, the survey results help communities figure out how to spread around billions in federal and state funds. And, if that hasn't sparked your curiosity, it's pretty interesting to compare where you live to neighboring cities in your state and across the country.

Here's an example. I'll call it, "A tale of two California metro areas." Wordy, I know, but I can't say cities because, in this case, the census data corresponds to the cities and surrounding suburbs.

California is the only state that has metro areas on the top ten highest and lowest list of poverty rates. And, if you live in the San Jose metro area, like Stephen Levy, it's the best of times. The poverty rate is one of the lowest in the country at 10.6 percent.  "Right now," says Levy, "the San Jose metro area is adding jobs at a very fast pace." Levy should know; he directs the Center For Continuing Study of the California Economy. (How's that for wordy?)

Levy says highly skilled, highly educated workers in his region have got it made. The San Jose metro area is better known by its nickname: Silicon Valley. And I'm not telling you anything you don't already know: it pays to work in tech. According to the new American Community Survey estimates for 2011, the median household income there is $84,000 a year. The median household income for Fresno's metro area, located three hours southeast of San Jose, is half that.

So, if it's the best of times in San Jose, it's the worst of times in Fresno and has been since the housing bust. Jim Connell runs a shelter in Fresno that offers free meals. He says he helps a lot of unemployed construction workers and their families. "We're seeing more families come to eat,"says Connell, "particularly toward the end of the month when money runs out." I asked him what they're most desperate for and he says "jobs", adding "People don't like being homeless, contrary to popular belief."

The poverty rate in Fresno's metro area is holding steady at 26 percent and there's no sign construction is coming back anytime soon. David Vera is an economics professor at Fresno State. He says it's tough to attract new businesses to a region where one in four people live at or below the poverty line and have little education. "We have not been able to attract the proper industry and we're working on creating the labor force.  But it's been challenging, because as soon as you have educated individuals, they move somewhere else."

Now that we know San Jose is only three hours away and that wages are high and poverty is low, it could be a spring of hope for those looking to escape their winter of despair.

About the author

Shereen Marisol Meraji is a reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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