Cheaper-than-average housing costs in the region seem to be keeping Yuba-Sutter's poverty rates lower than the state average.
Even with the local unemployment rate at 10 percent — twice the state average — the average weighted poverty rate for Yuba-Sutter is well under the state's — 16.6 percent locally compared to 21 percent statewide. What makes the difference is the formula for averaging the poverty rate is weighted with cost of living factors, such as housing, which is about 70 percent of the state average.
The rates vary according to agency and formula.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate in Yuba County is 21.6 percent; in Sutter County, it's 15.2 percent; and the state average is 16.4 percent.
But according to a recent report published by the Public Policy Institute of California, the combined weighted average for the two counties is 16.6 percent and the state's is 21 percent. That average takes into consideration housing costs and cost of living.
The median rent from 2010-14 in Yuba County was $884 per month, and for Sutter County, $898 per month, for a the combined average being $891. The state from the same time period was $1,243, making Yuba-Sutter's housing costs 30 percent lower than the state average.
David Ferrier, president and CEO of the Community Housing Improvement Program in Chico, believes the lower cost of living can also hinge on other living factors.
"The region that we live in is considered a low-cost/low-income area, i.e., although many costs are lower, such as housing, relative to coastal California, wages are also substantially lower," he said in an email. "Also, people on fixed income may not be affected by wage differences in different areas so they would be attracted to low cost regions such as the Sacramento Valley. A large number of people on fixed income are low-income or at poverty level so they skew the area's poverty numbers. This is the only place that they can afford to live."
Caroline Danielson, senior fellow and one of the authors of PPIC's "Poverty in California," said the numbers are different due to methodology. She said their weighted approach took into account what the U.S. Census Bureau didn't: housing costs, food assistance programs and other family expenses. The Census Bureau employs this methodology for states but not counties.
So what defines poverty, and what is the line in the sand for being able to provide dinner for the kids, or not?
According to the Census Bureau and PPIC, it depends on the poverty threshold — the "measuring stick" for poverty. It varies by family size; and is also based on spending on essential items: food, clothing, shelter and utilities from a nationwide survey. The numbers are then adjusted upward for counties with high housing costs relative to the state average and downward for counties with relatively low housing costs (this would be Yuba-Sutter counties). Earnings goes into the calculation of family resources.
According to Danielson in an email: "That is, family resources = earnings + investment income + retirement income + government assistance (from tax credits, food assistance, cash and housing assistance) + 'other' income (like child support)." For PPIC's report, their threshold was whether the earnings of a family of four fell below $24,000 annually. Find their report at tinyurl.com/gm2vd4r.
Though the poverty rate in the region is relatively low compared to statewide averages, the unemployment is much higher. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment average for 2015 for Sutter County was 10.8 percent and in Yuba County was 9.2 percent while the state's was 5.2 percent. Find those numbers at tinyurl.com/zeytcct.
Joseph Hale, CEO of Yuba-Sutter Habitat for Humanity, said lower housing costs help support stability. His organization builds, renovates, repairs and preserves affordable houses for families to buy on the philosophy the cost of a home shouldn't be more than 30 percent of someone's income.
"Stability plays a big role in different aspects in people's lives and allows people to go farther," Hale said. "When there's a network of stability, (someone) tends to be more involved in the community.
He said their clients range from families living in terrible neighborhoods to those in substandard housing to others living in someone else's home.
Hale thinks poverty in the area can probably be attributed mostly to cost of living and unemployment, which is a big factor in not being able to maintain housing.
According to the Census Bureau, the median selected monthly owner costs with a mortgage from 2010-14 in Sutter County was $1,577, and for Yuba County was $1,520.
According to demographics published by Yuba-Sutter Economic Development Corporation (which manages the nonprofit Sutter County Community Action Agency and Yuba County Community Services Commission and works with poverty in the area), the estimated annual cost of utilities per household (natural gas, electricity, fuel, telephone service, misc.) is $4,216.
Find more demographics from their findings at tinyurl.com/zuwq5me.
"We've determined that unless we do something to combat poverty, economic development doesn't come easy," said Brynda Stranix, president of Yuba-Sutter EDC.