Despite the financial ravages of the pandemic, the number of people struggling financially or in poverty did not dramatically change in the Bay Area, according to a new study.
The report — by Tipping Point Community and the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley — involved a survey of 1,329 residents in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in the winter of 2020-2021. It compared that data with responses from the same residents collected in 2018 and 2019.
The survey found that nearly 1 in 5 people entered the pandemic in poverty and remain there today. It also found that poverty continues to affect Black and Latino communities at an alarmingly higher rate than Asian and White communities.
The study credited emergency cash assistance programs from government and nonprofits for keeping people out of poverty. But social services leaders in Marin said the need remains, and especially in low-income non-White communities.
And most social services leaders said the burden put on local government and nonprofits was unsustainable.
“There are these hidden sort of pockets of great need and it’s not necessarily what people expect,” said Kari Beuerman, assistant director of the Marin County Health and Human Services Department. “That holds true for Marin. It’s that much more challenging because people don’t view Marin in that way, but it’s definitely out there.”
Marisa Giller, communications director for the nonprofit Tipping Point Community, said the regional study could not be broken down to Marin-specific details.
“Challenges in one county impact others –– we have to take a regional approach to addressing poverty, so that’s why Marin and five other counties were included in the study, and that’s why those in Marin should care,” she said. “Lastly, even though Marin has incredible wealth, there are also pockets of extreme poverty –– another reason why this study is relevant.”
According to 2019 census data, Marin County has a poverty rate of 6.9% or about 17,800 people. The median household income is about $115,000, and per capita income is about $73,000.
The survey indicated that government benefits prevented more than 200,000 Bay Area residents from slipping into poverty. Those benefits include federal stimulus payments, increases in unemployment benefits and nonprofit aid programs that were administered at a municipal level.
Beuerman said the extreme wealth disparity in Marin County was illustrated during the pandemic in how the county’s poorest residents sought out services. The county’s burden of recipients of MediCal, CalFresh, CalWORKS and general relief has grown exponentially since the 2019-20 fiscal year, she said.
CalFresh, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, had a 26.5% increase in participants, from 10,193 in March 2020 to 12,898 in October 2021, she said. Additional applications are under review and not included in these numbers.
CalWorks, the California version of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, grew from 400 participants to 643. The county’s general relief program, which serves childless adults with small monthly financial loans, grew from 511 people to 971.
The survey said Bay Area households under financial hardship were more than twice as likely to reach out to nonprofits for help. Leaders of county nonprofits said they stepped up to provide rental assistance, direct cash payments and food service to those in need.
“The public sector turned to the private sector to fill the gaps,” said Cheryl Paddack, chief executive officer of North Marin Community Services. “And we wanted to best serve between the public and private sector gaps, but we have to do it in a sustainable way that doesn’t just rely on public sector dollars.”
The Novato nonprofit issued $1.7 million in rental assistance, keeping about 2,000 people housed, Paddack said. In addition, it provided $455,000 in cash assistance for 910 families to buy groceries and distributed 21,000 food bags.
West Marin Community Services — which offers support to low-income families, undocumented workers and seniors in unincorporated rural towns — offered $500 rental stipends to families of four with a total income of less than $78,600 a year. It also saw the largest increase in need from its food pantry.
“In the past, they probably would have never made use of our services,” said Yareli Cervantes, emergency assistance program manager. “Some of the families that were already falling through the cracks, we were able to step in and offer their safety net services and keep them afloat.”
The leaders of these nonprofits said poverty in Latino and Black communities was pervasive before the pandemic and the result of historical inequities, but the financial and health impact of the pandemic also disproportionately affected those communities.
According to the survey, 54% of Black and Latino residents reported frequently running out of money during the pandemic, compared with 24% of White residents and 19% of Asian American residents. Sixty percent of Black residents reported having less than three months of savings, compared with 49% of Latino residents, 25% of White residents and 20% of Asian American residents.
Paddack said 89% of those served by her organization are from non-White communities.
Omar Carrera, chief executive of Canal Alliance in San Rafael, said at one point during the pandemic, 80% of cases came from the predominantly Latino Canal neighborhood, where many residents are essential workers and live in multifamily homes. Despite the public health risks, they took jobs because they needed to pay the rent, he said.
“All of us got impacted by the pandemic, many of us lost friends and family members, but we were able to convert our jobs into virtual jobs and not take unnecessary risks,” Carrera said. “But that was not the reality for everyone.”
Organizations such as Canal Alliance put “boots on the ground” early in the pandemic to gauge impacts in these neighborhoods and engage the community, Carrera said.
“We never closed the doors. We tried to offer people what they needed,” he said.
Royce McLemore, the founder of the nonprofit Women Helping All People, said most of Marin City’s immediate needs were met, such as food and housing assistance. Marin City has the highest concentration of Black residents in the county.
McLemore’s concern is that the assistance was dwindling despite the community continuing to struggle.
“We just hope that there’s some point of a turning in all of this because we’re not normal yet and we don’t even know what normal is going to bring,” she said. “People will still be suffering because the rent is not going down and instead in some places they’re raising it.”