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Poverty, Income, and Earnings in the City of San Diego, 2019 and 2021

The latest US Census figures (2021 ACS data) show employers continue to pay low wages even as the cost of housing, food, transportation and other basic necessities rise. Black and Latinx workers are more likely than White and Asian workers to have incomes below the federal poverty rate.

This report provides insight into poverty, income, and earnings in the City of San Diego. Data in this report comes from the US Census Bureau 2019 and 2021 American Community Survey. Data for 2020 is not included due to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the ability to collect sufficient and reliable census data.  

Key findings

Poverty in the city of san diego

The federal government’s poverty thresholds are the same across the nation, despite differences in the cost of housing, food and other basic necessities. In 2021, the federal government considered a person to live in poverty if their income was $12,880 or less. The federal government defined a family of four as living in poverty if their income was $26,500 or less. This measure hugely underestimates who is living in poverty, especially in high cost areas like San Diego. 

The federal poverty level greatly underestimates who is living in poverty in the City of San Diego. 
For the past five years the City of San Diego has had a higher percentage of people living in poverty than the County overall. Among large cities the City of San Diego had the third highest poverty rate in 2021 behind El Cajon and Vista. The percentage of people living in poverty increased in most of the largest cities in San Diego County.

The State of California uses 200% of the federal poverty threshold to determine eligibility for public benefit programs such as CalFresh and Medi-Cal. This is an attempt to adjust for the high cost of living throughout California. However, 200% of the federal poverty level still fails to count everyone in San Diego who needs public benefits or support.

Almost 1 in 4 individuals (23.1%) in the City of San Diego are facing economic hardship.

Racial & Ethnic Disparities

Black and Latinx people are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to live in poverty than White people.

Poverty rates also vary by race. Black, Latinx, and Native American individuals are more likely to live in poverty than their White and Asian counterparts. Black and Latinx people are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to live in poverty than White people. Between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of people living in poverty increased slightly for Black and Latinx households, while it decreased for White and Asian and Pacific Islander households. Racial differences in income and poverty are caused by discrimination in employment, housing segregation, racialized mass incarceration, and other structural barriers. 


See our note below on the Asian and Pacific Islander category in the US Census.

Asian Pacific and Islanders in the Census Data

ACS 1-year data puts all people with Asian and the Pacific Islander heritage into one category. We recognize that Asian and Pacific Islander (API) is a broad category that includes people from diverse geographies and widely different patterns of migration to the US. Because of the small number of people in San Diego with heritage from individual countries in Asia and the Pacific Islands, it can be challenging for researchers to carry out detailed and comparative analysis of these populations. However, when we are able to look at groups by using other data sets like 5-year ACS data, we know that Thai, Burmese, Cambodian, and Taiwanese workers have some of the highest poverty rates in our region.

Download our 2015 Household Income and Economic Hardship among Asian and Pacific Islander Groups in San Diego County report below.

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Youth Poverty & Economic Hardship

The percentage of children in poverty increased from 11.7% in 2019 to 13.3% in 2021. However, the 33,295 children living in poverty in 2021 was about a third of the number who lived in poverty in 2017 (102,202 children). This decrease could be due to increased programs and services targeted toward families near the 200% poverty level during the COVID-19 pandemic recovery period. For example, the federal government expanded eligibility for the Child Tax Credit (CTC).

Furthermore, the percentage of children living in economic hardship decreased from 18.8% in 2019 to 13.4% in 2021. Although these decreases are promising, it remains that more than 1 in 7 children in the City of San Diego still live in families experiencing economic hardship. In addition, some of the program expansions that may have helped reduce child poverty are set to end in the summer of 2023, which may reverse our gains in reducing child poverty. This reversal will have different impacts by race because of stark disparities in the percentage of Black, Latinx, and Native American children living in poverty compared to White and Asian and Pacific Islander children.

Forty percent (40.2%) of Black children live in poverty, and around 1 in 4 Latinx (25.0%) and Native American (29.5%) children live in families experiencing poverty. 

In comparison, 14.3% of White children and 9.9% of Asian and Pacific Islander children live in poverty. While these data show that many San Diego residents experience poverty, the consistently higher poverty rates among Black, Latinx, and Native American youth highlight the need for racially targeted programs to decrease this disparity.

Poverty, self-sufficiency, and median income

Neither the federal poverty level nor the 200% of the federal poverty level standard used by the State of California measures whether people can actually afford a decent standard of living on that income. The University of Washington Center for Women’s Welfare takes into account what is needed to cover basic necessities like housing, food, healthcare, transportation, and childcare. An individual in San Diego County must make at least $38,919 to make ends meet without the need for social services. This number rises to $94,895 for a family of four with two working adults and two school-aged children.

San Diego County Self-Sufficiency Standard
A monthly budget to cover necessities, without public or private assistance

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More than half of the households in the City of San Diego make less than this self-sufficiency wage. The median household income in San Diego increased by 1.9% from $85,507 in 2019 to $93,042 in 2021, meaning half of San Diego households made less than $85,507.

These increases were unevenly distributed. Black, Latinx, and Native American households’ median incomes in the City of San Diego remain significantly below (approximately 40-46% less than) that of White households. For example, half of Black households in the City of San Diego have an income of less than $68,189.

Among White households, median income rose by 11.2%, from $100,566 to $111,793. Black households experienced an increase in median income from $61,408 to $68,189. For at least 5 years, the unequal income distribution of household incomes by race has remained unchanged. Black and Latinx median household incomes have been lower than the median income for White households and lower than the City median.

Housing Burden

Housing experts, including the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, consider households that spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing costs to be housing cost-burdened. More than half (52.8%) of all renters and almost one in three (31.9%) homeowners are experiencing a housing cost burden in the City of San Diego. The number of people with housing burden is especially large, given that renters comprise the majority (51.7%) of occupied housing units in the City of San Diego. Although the percentage of renting households facing housing burden in the City of San Diego is slightly lower than housing-burdened renters in California (55%) and in the County of San Diego (57.6%), it is much higher than the national rate (40%).

Pay & gender disparities in key industries

Individuals and families experiencing high rates of economic hardship and housing burden is largely due to low wages and the high cost of housing, food, transportation and other basic necessities. Median wages in all of the largest industries in the City are lower than the wages needed for a single parent or caregiver to raise a preschooler. Because of gender discrimination, women who work in these professions are even worse off. Women in San Diego are paid less in all of the largest industries except construction. In the largest industry in San Diego, professional, scientific, and technical services, women are paid less than 79 cents for every dollar that men make in the same industry.

Income Inequality

Income inequality between high income and low income households persists. Over half of all income in the City of San Diego goes to the top 20% of income earners. In fact, the top 5% of income earners took home 22% of all income, almost as much as the bottom 60% of households, who took home 27% of all income.


Except where otherwise noted, data are from the US Census Bureau’s 2021 and 2019 1-year American Community Survey (ACS). Note: This report omits 2020 data due to statistically unreliable US Census data collection.

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Written by CPI San Diego

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