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Poverty and Income in South County San Diego

Analysis of regional data from the US Census Bureau 2015 American Community Survey 

Key Findings

Poverty in South County: One of every seven people living in the South County region of San Diego County – 14.7% of the population – lived in poverty in 2015. The poverty rate varied across South County cities from 10.6% to 24.7%.

Children in Poverty: Children were particularly impacted by poverty throughout the region, especially in two cities: Nearly a third of all children in Imperial Beach and National City lived in households with below-poverty incomes.

Low Pay in Key Industries: Among the industries employing the most South County residents, the lowest incomes were in the Accommodation and Food Services, primarily hotels and restaurants. The median pay for South County residents employed in that industry and in the next lowest, Retail Trade, was about $25,000 a year for full-time, year-round work.


The South County region – including three cities and the San Ysidro area of the City of San Diego – is home to almost 70,000 men, women, and children who live below the federal poverty level. That is 14.7% of the region’s population of 474,061, a poverty rate substantially higher than the 13.8% rate for San Diego County overall. The income limit of the federal poverty level (FPL) varies by family size; in 2015 a family of four, for example, was below the FPL if their income was below $24,036.

Economic Hardship

Since the national poverty measure is not adjusted for the high cost of living in San Diego County,* we also analyzed the share of the population living below the economic hardship level of 200% of the FPL. This measure provides a more realistic count of the families and individuals with low incomes. Well over a third (37.7%) of the South County population lived in economic hardship in 2015.

* CPI “Making Ends Meet 2014” http://www.cpisandiego.org/making_ends_meet

Poverty by City, Age, and Race and Ethnicity

The cities of Imperial Beach and National City had poverty rates considerably higher than the San Diego County overall rate of 13.8% in 2015.

The rate was highest and grew the most in Imperial Beach, where a quarter of the population lived below the federal poverty level. Chula Vista had a lower poverty rate, primarily because of newer subdivisions on the eastern side of the city. In all three South County cities, the poverty rate remained higher than it was before the 2008 recession, indicating that the recovery has not reached all families.

Children of South County were more likely than adults to live in poverty. Child poverty rates were higher than the general rate in each city and in the region overall, while senior citizens generally had lower poverty rates. For the entire South County area, 20% of children and 14% of seniors lived below the poverty line.

Race and Ethnicity

Racial and ethnic disparities in poverty rates were less pronounced in South County than San Diego County overall, with a higher poverty rate among White residents and lower rates for all other groups. Compared to the regional 14.7% poverty rate, Latino residents were more likely to live in poverty.

Household Income and Housing Costs

The median – or midpoint – of all household incomes in South County was $57,873 in 2015.

Chula Vista had the highest median income in the region, at almost $67,000 a year, roughly equivalent to the whole county and City of San Diego. The medians in Imperial Beach and National City were each about $23,000 below Chula Vista, and Imperial Beach incomes remained the farthest below pre-recession levels.

Income Inequality

One fifth of all households in South County received 45% of all the income in the region in 2015. By contrast, the lowest income-earning fifth of households received only 4% of all income.


Housing Costs and Income

The median cost of renting a 2-bedroom apartment in South County was $1,250, and ranged from $1,072 in National City to $1,274 in Chula Vista. Housing, the biggest expense in most family budgets, is considered unaffordable if it consumes more than 30% of household income. So a South County family needs an income of $50,000 a year, well above poverty level, to afford the median 2-bedroom rent without doubling up, relying on assistance, or cutting out needed items. Almost two-thirds of renters throughout the region have incomes too low for housing costs, including in Chula Vista despite its lower poverty rate.

Industries and Working Poverty

In the South County region, 38.1% of adults (age 16 or over) living in poverty had jobs in 2015.

That includes 4,356 people who worked full-time all year and were paid less than the federal poverty threshold.

 Among the 10 industries with more than 10,000 employees living in South County, the Accommodation and Food Services industry – primarily hotels and restaurants – had the lowest earnings. Median annual pay in 2015 for South County residents employed full-time and year-round in that industry was $25,032. Seven of the largest 10 industries had median full-time earnings below the $50,000 needed just to afford the median rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the region. Earnings are even lower for employees with part-time jobs. In three service industries – Accommodation and Food Services, Retail Trade, and Education Services – fewer than half of the jobs were full-time year-round.

Methodology: Except where otherwise noted, data are from the Census Bureau’s 2015 1-year American Community Survey (ACS). South County regional estimates are based on analysis by CPI of 2015 ACS data Public Use Microdata. We defined “South County” based on the Census Bureau’s Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs) 07320, 07321, and 07322, which include the incorporated cities of Chula Vista, National City, and Imperial Beach; as well as the community planning areas of San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, Otay Mesa-Nestor, and Tijuana River Valley within the City of San Diego; and Bonita and other unincorporated areas surrounding or between these cities and places. We also used Census data tables available separately for cities of more than 65,000 population, and limited 2015 estimates available for cities or places with population between 20,000 and 65,000 (e.g., National City and Imperial Beach).

Funding from Leichtag Foundation made this report possible.

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CPI San Diego
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Written by CPI San Diego

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