• Search
    Center on Policy Initiatives

Poverty and Income in East San Diego County

Analysis of regional data from the US Census Bureau 2015 5-year American Community Survey

Key Findings

Poverty in East County: One of every seven people living in the East County region of San Diego County – 14.1% of the population – lived in poverty during 2011-2015. The poverty rate varied across East County cities from 7.8% in Santee to 24.2% in El Cajon.

Children in Poverty:Children were particularly likely to live in households with below-poverty incomes throughout the region, especially in El Cajon and Lemon Grove.

Low Pay in Key Industries: Among the industries employing the most East County residents, the lowest incomes were in the Accommodation and Food Services, primarily hotels and restaurants. The median pay for East County residents employed in that industry was $24,093 a year for full-time, year-round work. More than half the jobs were part-time, with lower income.


The East County region is home to more than 87,000 men, women, and children who live below the federal poverty level (FPL). Half of them live in the region’s five largest cities and the other half in the vast rural area of mountains, deserts, Indian reservations, and small towns.We analyzed 5-year Census data from 2015, the most recent available, and found that the region’s poverty rate averaged 14.1% of the population. The FPL varies by family size. For a family of four anywhere in the US, the poverty threshold in 2015 was an annual income of $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 with incomes below 200% of the FPL, a more realistic count of the families and individuals living in economic hardship. Altogether, 33% of the East County population of 622,518 lived in poverty or economic hardship.

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

Poverty by City, Age, and Race and Ethnicity

Poverty rates in all East County cities remained higher than before the Great Recession, indicating that the recovery has not reached all families. The rate was highest and grew the most in El Cajon, where a quarter of the population lived below the federal poverty level.

Children of East County were more likely than adults to live in poverty, particularly in El Cajon, with a child poverty rate of almost 34%. Senior citizens had lower poverty rates than the overall population. For the entire East County region, 19% of children and 8% of seniors lived below the poverty line.

Race and Ethnicity: Native American residents of East County were most likely to live in poverty, and Latino and Black residents also had poverty rates higher than the regional average of 14.1%. Compared to San Diego County overall, poverty rates in East County were higher for White and Native American residents and lower for other groups.

Household Income and Housing Costs

The median – or midpoint – of all household incomes in East County was $61,841. Median household income varied widely, from a low of $45,925 a year in El Cajon to a high of $76,104 in Santee. Incomes were still below pre-recession levels everywhere except La Mesa, with the largest drop in El Cajon.

Income Inequality: One fifth of all households in East County received nearly half (47%) of all the income in the region. 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 East County was $1,201, with the highest rent in La Mesa. Housing, the biggest expense in most family budgets, is considered unaordable if it consumes more than 30% of household income. So an East County family needs an income of $48,040 a year, well above poverty level, to aord the median 2-bedroom rent without doubling up, relying on assistance, or cutting out needed items. Throughout the region, 60% of renters have incomes too low for the local housing costs.

Industries and Working Poverty

In the East County region, 35.6% of adults (age 16 and over) living in poverty had jobs, including more than 5,000 people who worked full-time all year and were paid less than the federal poverty threshold. More than half (54%) of households in poverty and nearly two-thirds (65.5%) of households in economic hardship had at least one family member who worked during the year. Among the 10 industries employing more than 15,000 East County residents, the Accommodation and Food Services industry – primarily hotels and restaurants – had the lowest earnings. Median annual pay for East County residents employed full-time and year-round in that industry was $24,093. Half of the largest 10 industries had median full-time earnings below the $48,040 needed just to aord the median rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the region. Earnings are lower for employees with part-time jobs. In three service industries – Accommodation and Food Services, Educational Services, and Other Services – fewer than half of the jobs were full-time and year-round.


Except where otherwise noted, data are from the Census Bureau’s 2015 5-year American Community Survey (ACS). which combines data collected in 2011-2015. The use of 5-year data was necessary to get reliable estimates for the smaller population cities in the region. East County regional estimates are based on analysis by CPI of 2015 5-year ACS data Public Use Microdata. We dened “East County” based on the Census Bureau’s 2010 Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs) 07302, 07307, and 07319, 07313, and well as PUMA 07314, which was weighted by a factor of 0.3987 to account for the portion of the population living in La Mesa within that PUMA. The 5-year ACS data includes data from 2011, at which time Census Bureau used 2000 PUMAs. From 2011, we included 2000 PUMAs 08103, 08106, 08108, and 08114. All years of regional data include the cities of El Cajon, Santee, La Mesa, and Lemon Grove, as well as unincorporated areas throughout East County including Spring Valley, Lakeside, Winter Gardens, Ramona, Alpine, and Jamul. We also used 5-year 2015 ACS Census data tables available separately for each city within the region and the largest unincorporated “Census designated place,” Spring Valley

Written by CPI San Diego

Justice for Warehouse Workers/ Justicia Para Trabajadores de almacen

join the fight against wage theft/ Unéte a la lucha contra robo de salario