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Poverty, Income and Earnings in East County, 2018

Regional Poverty, Income & Earnings Reports  ·  September 2020 

Analysis of Regional Data from the US Census Bureau 2018 American Community Survey

Key Findings

Poverty in East County: One in every ten people – 10.6% of the population – living in the East County region of San Diego County lived in poverty during 2018. The poverty rate varied across East County cities from 6.6% in Santee to 24.2% in El Cajon.

Children in Poverty: Children were more likely to live in households with below poverty incomes throughout the region than adults. One in seven children (15%) lived in poverty. Childhood poverty rates were especially elevated in El Cajon, Lakeside and Lemon Grove.

Low Pay in Key Industries: Among the five industries employing the most East County residents, the lowest pay was found in the Accommodation and Food Services sector. The median pay of East County residents employed in Accommodation and Food jobs was $18,296 a year for all workers, and $29,224 for full-time, year-round workers in the sector.

Poverty and Economic Hardship

The East County region is mostly composed of small cities, unincorporated towns and Indigenous communities spread across a combination of mountainous and arid desert terrains. The largest city in the east San Diego county region is El Cajon with a population of 103,241 people. Other cities in the region include La Mesa (59,556 people), Santee (58,115 people) and Lemon Grove (26,969 people).

The East San Diego County region is home to more than 74,000 men, women, and children who live below the federal poverty level (FPL), with half of them living in the five largest cities and the other half living in the rural, unincorporated areas.

Lemon Grove is the only East County city where the poverty rate was lower in 2018 than before the Great Recession began in 2008. La Mesa, Spring Valley and El Cajon all had poverty levels that were higher than they were in 2007. In 2018 El Cajon had the highest poverty rate and the largest percent of growth in poverty, since the recession, among East County cities. Unsurprisingly, cities that were worse off in 2018 than they were before the Great Recession have been particularly hard hit by the negative economic and health impacts of COVID. Given the difficult economic position in which they entered the COVID crisis, they will likely face greater challenges rebuilding as this crisis recedes.

Most cities in the area have poverty rates slightly above the regional poverty rate. However, the poverty rate in El Cajon is double the rate of the East County region overall.

The federal government’s poverty thresholds—which define who is poor and who is not— are not adjusted based on the cost of living in different parts of the country. In 2018, the federal poverty threshold for an individual was less than $12,784 and was $25,701 for a family of four. These federal thresholds underestimate the number of poor people in high-cost areas like San Diego. Since the poverty rate does not accurately reflect the number of people struggling to make ends meet in San Diego County, we include US Census data about the number of people whose income is less than twice the poverty threshold. The 200% of poverty threshold provides a better picture of how many San Diegans are living in conditions of severe economic hardship.

Youth & Senior Poverty

The poverty rate for people under the age of 18 declined from 18.5% in 2017 to 15% in 2018. The East County youth poverty rate (15.0%) is roughly the same as the rate for the County overall (14.9%). Youth in East County are less likely to live in poverty than youth in the City of San Diego. However, youth poverty is alarmingly high in the City of El Cajon and accounts for a large portion of all poverty in the East County region. El Cajon’s youth poverty rate of 29.6% is the highest youth poverty rate in the East County region. In fact, nearly 1 in 3 young people living in poverty in East County live within the City of El Cajon.

In 2018, more than one in three youth (34.7%) in East County lived in families experiencing economic hardship. Youth in the East County region represent 22.4% of San Diego county’s total youth, and also represent 22.1% of the county’s youth experiencing economic hardship.

The senior poverty rate, or poverty rate for individuals 65 and over, improved from 2017 to 2018, with 768 fewer individuals living below the FPL. While this is a low number, it was a percentage decrease of 8.7%.

Racial Poverty & Income Disparities

Racial inequality continues to be significant in the East County region. The poverty rate for Black residents is double that of their white counterparts. While the white community has the largest population of residents (40,188) living under the FPL, it has the lowest rate of poverty (9.8%) of any racial group in the East County region. Black residents have the highest poverty rate, with nearly one in five (19.2%) Black residents (6,713) living in households below the FPL.

Latinx residents make up the second largest population of residents (26,686) living in households under the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) in East County. Latinx residents also have the second highest rate of poverty. One in seven Latinx residents (14%) lived in poverty in 2018. This illustrates the continued need for racially conscious policies to achieve equity.

In the East County region, not only do racial disparities shape poverty rates there are also significant differences in median household income across races consistent with trends across San Diego County. The exception to the general trend is the economic conditions for Native American households in East County. In North and South County, Native American households have the lowest median incomes of all racial and ethnic groups. In contrast, in East County half of all Native American households have incomes greater than $80,000. This is virtually the same as for White households in East County where over half of these households have incomes of more than $81,000. The uniqueness of East County may be explained by a concentration of businesses that provide income to many Native American households in the region, in particular, casino related revenues. Latinx households have the lowest median income with 50% of Latinx households in East County making less than $66,500 a year.

Income Inequality in East County

Richest 20% of households receive nearly half of all the income in the region. The top 5% of income earning households receive 1.5 times the share of income that the lowest 40% of income earning households in the East County region receive.

In 2018, the median income for the East County region was $79,586, slightly higher than the median household income for all San Diego County, $79,079.

Among cities in East County, El Cajon has the lowest median household income. Half of all El Cajon households have annual incomes below $52,500. Lemon Grove has the second lowest median income, with 50% of households making less than $62,000 a year. With the exception of Santee, all the cities in East County have median household incomes below those in the City of San Diego and San Diego County overall.

Rent Cost Burden

In 2018, the median gross rent in the East County Region was $1,293. Half of the renters paid less than $1,294 in rent each month. Among residents of the cities in the region, El Cajon residents pay the lowest median rent with 50% of renters paying less than $1,316 in rent per month. While East County rents are lower than in the City of San Diego, the higher prevalence of lower income households in East County mean that rental housing affordability is still a big issue in the region.

Experts consider households who spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing costs to be housing burdened. Renters in East County are enduring high rent costs, with 60% of renters spending over 30% of their income on rent. Lower costs of housing does not translate into lower rates of rent burden across East County places. For example, Spring Valley area has the highest rate of rent burden in East County, 64.6% of households spend over 30% of their income on rent there. In contrast Santee and La Mesa have the highest average rents of the region, but also have the lowest rates of rent burden. Though even in La Mesa, over half of all households experience rent burden.

Low Pay in Key Industries

There are 334,042 residents employed in the East County region. The largest employment sector for East County residents is Healthcare and Social Services. Median earnings for workers in Healthcare and Social Services ($40,376), are slightly above the median earnings in East County ($39,688). The next largest industry, Retail Trade, has some of the lowest median earnings in East County. The lowest earnings are found in Accommodation & Food Services where approximately 14,000 working residents have annual earnings of less than $18,300. Wages in the the Accommodation & Food Services industry must be increased if this industry is going to contribute to shared prosperity in this region and in the County as a whole. The unfairness of paying these workers poverty wages is particularly salient during the COVID-19 public health crisis where many of these same workers have been deemed essential for our survival.


Except where otherwise noted, data are from the US Census Bureau’s 2018 1-year American Community Survey (ACS). Data on the Public Use Micro-statistical Area (PUMA) 5-year estimates will not be available until January 2021.

Study Area: We also used Census data available separately for most cities of over 65,000 population, and limited 2018 estimates available for cities or Census places with population between 20,000 and 65,000 (e.g., El Cajon, La Mesa, Santee, Spring Valley, Lemon Grove). Public Use Micro-statistical Area (PUMA): 07302, 07307, 07319, 07313, and 07314 (this area is weighted by a factor of 0.3987 to account for the portion of the population living in La Mesa within that PUMA) (2010 areas); 08103, 08106, and 08108 (2000 areas). 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. Although technically not a city, Spring Valley is a Census Designated Place (CDP) and part of the unincorporated area in the region. We included Spring Valley in the charts throughout the report because its population is equivalent to Lemon Grove.

Annually, CPI releases a series of Poverty, Income, and Earnings Reports providing the latest data and insight on regional poverty, income, and earnings. These reports are used by advocates and policymakers to make informed, positive changes that improve the environmental, mental, and physical health of our community. We would like to thank the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for supporting this year’s report series.


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