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Poverty, Income and Earnings in South County, 2018

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

Key Findings

Poverty in South County: One in every nine people – 11% of the population – living in the south region of San Diego County lived in poverty in 2018. The poverty rate varied across South County cities from 11% in Chula Vista to 20% in Imperial Beach.

Children and Seniors in Poverty: Children and seniors were particularly likely to live in households with below-poverty incomes throughout the region, especially in Imperial Beach and National City.

Low Pay in Key Industries: Among the industries employing the most South County residents, the lowest pay was in Accommodation and Food Services, and Retail Trade.

Poverty and Economic Hardship

The San Diego South County region – which includes three cities, the San Ysidro neighborhood in the City of San Diego and the unincorporated areas of the southern region of the county – is home to 52,866 people who live below the federal poverty level. The poverty rate in this part of the county declined slightly in 2018 to 11.24%, a drop of 1.97 percentage points from the previous year.

The cities of Imperial Beach and National City had the highest poverty rates in South County, considerably higher than San Diego County and the South County region overall. One in five (20%) residents in both Imperial Beach and National City lived in poverty and more than 40% of residents struggled to get by.

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 federally-determined poverty threshold for an individual was less than $12,784 and was $25,701 for a family of four. These 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.

The poverty rate in South County is roughly the same as the rate in the County, at half a percentage point less than the overall rate. The percentage of people living in economic hardship (200% poverty rate) in South County declined in 2018 to 30%, a drop of 2.7 percentage points since 2017. Despite the decline, 3 in 10 South County residents still struggled to get by.

Youth and Senior Poverty

The youth poverty rate decreased from 15.5% in 2017 to 14.5% in 2018. This poverty rate is below the youth poverty rate for California, San Diego County, and the City of San Diego. However, National City and Imperial Beach have significantly higher percentages of youth living in poverty compared to Chula Vista and San Diego County overall. In addition, a higher percentage of South County youth are living in families experiencing economic hardship than in the City of San Diego and the County overall.


The number of youth in deep poverty -those whose family incomes are less than the 50% federal poverty threshold- increased over the same period, from 6.9% in 2017 to 7.3% in 2018. As a result, approximately 451 more youth experienced deep poverty in the south region in 2018 than in 2017. This signals that efforts to reduce poverty in the youth population are not reaching the youth experiencing the deepest levels of poverty.

The senior poverty rate, or poverty rate for individuals 65 and over, worsened from 2017 to 2018, growing from 13.4% to 15.3%. The percentage of seniors living in poverty and economic hardship is significantly higher in South County than in the County overall. This highlights the need for additional income-based resources to support our senior age individuals.

Racial Poverty & Income Disparities

Similarly to general trends in San Diego County, racial disparities in poverty and median household income across races persist in South County. While poverty rates are highest among Latinx people in the south region, Native Americans experience the lowest median incomes in the area.

The Latinx population in South County has the highest rate of poverty (16.4%) of all racial groups living in the south region. While the poverty rate for Latinx people in South County is slightly lower than the average for the region, because of the large concentration of Latinx residents in the south, 25% of all Latinx people in San Diego County with household incomes below the federal poverty level live in South County. Further, while in general poverty rates have been declining among most South County residents, rates of poverty have fallen more slowly for the Latinx population. In contrast, the rate of poverty for Black residents in South County declined over the past decade. Nevertheless, the poverty rate for Black residents is still 4.0% and 5.9% higher than their White and Asian counterparts, respectively. This illustrates the need for policies that explicitly work to reduce poverty for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) residents in the South County region, but especially for Latinx residents.

While on average, the median income for residents of the south region increased between 2017 and 2018, median income declined for Native Americans. As a result, half of all Native Americans in the south region had household incomes of less than $37,600 in 2018. Black residents also have low household incomes. Fifty percent of Black households have annual incomes of less than $56,800. This is substantially lower than the median income for South County where 50% of the households have incomes of more than $74,300. The median income for Asian households is $82,700. Income inequality is high among Latinx residents in South County as evidenced by the fact that Latinx people have the highest rate of poverty in the area, but 50% of Latinx residents make more than $71,600.

Income Inequality in South County

Forty-four percent of all the income in South County goes to the top 20% of households in the region. The top 5% of income earners have a larger share of income than the lowest 40% of income earners in the South County region. Focus needs to be placed on increasing the earnings of the lowest paid workers and ensuring the industries provide high-quality jobs including pay that means no one who works lives in poverty.

In 2018, the median income in South County was $74,225, slightly less than the median household income ($79,079) for San Diego County overall. Looking at cities in South County, National City has the lowest median household income, followed closely by Imperial Beach. Half of all National City residents have annual incomes below $46,000 and 50% of Imperial Beach residents have annual incomes below $51,800. A significant proportion of residents in these cities are experiencing issues associated with economic hardship and poverty.

60% of Renters in South County are Rent Cost Burdened

In South San Diego County, median gross rent is $1,632, meaning 50% of renters, or 36,958 units, are paying over $1,632 in rent each month. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), families are rent/cost-burdened when their monthly rent is 30% or more of their monthly income. Most renters in San Diego County are rent burdened. In fact, while South County rents are below the average for the County, rents in South County are inaccessible for a large portion of residents. Even in cities like National City, where rental rates are significantly lower than the regional average it is still the case that more than 60% of residents pay more than 30% of their income on rent.

Housing affordability in the region has long been a pressing issue. In 2020 people have lost their jobs or otherwise seen significant decreases in their household income due to the COVID crisis, rent burden is rising. The need to increase housing security, make housing more affordable and to protect renters from losing their housing is more critical than ever.

Low Pay in Key industries

In 2018, 213,057 residents in South County were employed. Of these almost 40% worked in one of the three largest industries in the region. Those industries are 1) health care & social services, 2) retail and 3) accommodation and food services. While government officials designated both health care/social services and many retail jobs as essential during the COVID crisis, the majority of jobs in these industries pay low wages which do not cover the costs of supporting a family. But even among these essential industries pay disparities exist. Specifically, half of all South County residents employed in health care and social services were paid less than $36,522 per year. Whereas, half of all South County retail workers were paid less than $25,615. While higher, even the median income for healthcare and social services workers is low, making it difficult to cover the cost of living. Evidence suggests that over the first few months of the COVID crisis job loss in the accommodation and food service was extremely high. The job loss combined with the very low pre-COVID income in this industry means that the crisis has likely had a very high and immediate negative impact on economic security in South County. In addition, the significant percentage of South County residents working essential industries with significant public interaction places the south region in more health danger as well.


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., Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, National City)

Public Use Micro-statistical Area (PUMA): 07320, 07321, and 07322 (2010 areas); 08102, 08104, and 08105 (2000 areas). These areas are inclusive of 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.

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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