United Way

Kern’s vaunted affordability elusive for local wage-earners

Article by John Cox from Bakersfield.com


Kern has long benefited from its reputation as a more affordable place to live than other parts of California. Its relatively low prices not only attract businesses fed up with rising costs elsewhere, but during the pandemic, many Southern Californians working remotely sold their homes in favor of more reasonable housing in Bakersfield.

But it’s a different story for many people living in the county who earn local wages.

New data from the United Way of California suggests that residing and working in Kern is actually less affordable than the rest of the state as a whole — not based on the cost of basic necessities, but because of how little the county’s least-paid workers earn relative to their basic expenses.

The organization’s latest calculation of what it takes to get by, its annual “real cost measure” report, shows that 40% of Kern households struggle in 2023 to pay for housing, food, health care, child care, transportation, taxes and other miscellaneous necessities.

That’s 6 percentage points more than the share of households in California as a whole — a significant difference that underscores the inadequacy of a median household income that at $60,560 per year amounts to just three-quarters that of the rest of the state.

There has been notable improvement in recent years: The same publication found in 2018 that 45% of Kern households struggled to meet their basic needs.

But the fact that no fewer than two in five county households have a difficult time making ends meet is hardly satisfactory to United Way of California’s director of program and policy development, Henry Gascon.

“It’s still incredibly expensive for people to get by” in Kern despite the county’s overall lower costs, he said.

Observers say the new findings add urgency to state policymaking, particularly in housing matters. Even as the report raises questions about what constitutes a viable minimum wage, some say, it demonstrates how important it will be for Sacramento to do more to incentivize construction of new housing.

“Affordable or not, we just need more housing,” said President and CEO Mari Pérez-Dowling of United Way of Kern County. She added that she “absolutely” thinks the lowest-paid workers should be better compensated.

The report released earlier this month points to stark discrepancies in the economic suffering felt by different segments of society. Some factors may potentially be addressed by individuals, such as education levels, while others are beyond people’s choosing.

Kern’s single mothers have it worst, according to the report, with about two-thirds of their households earning less than the county’s actual cost of living. It found that ranking just below them are households with foreign-born non-citizens, slightly less than two-thirds struggle to get by — exactly twice the rate of households of U.S.-born citizens.

Hispanic households have an especially hard time: The United Way found 51% earn less than the minimum income required for a Hispanic household of two adults, one preschooler and one school-aged child. That’s twice the share of a white household of the same description. For Blacks in Kern, the figure was reported to be 45%.

The study also found that a little more than two-thirds of county households without a high school diploma or the equivalent earn less than what the United Way determined to be their cost of living. Half of households with a high school diploma or equivalent struggle to get by, as compared with just 15% of Kern households with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Twenty-two percent of senior citizen households in Kern earn less than the United Way’s real cost measure. For households consisting of married couples, it found, the rate was 38%.

Open Door Network CEO Lauren Skidmore, whose nonprofit serves Kern residents with extremely low incomes, said by email the United Way’s data shows that although Kern is more affordable than the rest of the state in some respects, “there is still a tight margin for a lot of our population.”

She noted food and transportation costs borne by a family of four in Kern are lower than the state’s average, but not by much: United Way reported food is only 5% less expensive in the county, relative to the statewide rate, while transportation — “one of the greatest barriers for our population,” she pointed out — is just 4.4% cheaper.

Skidmore said she was curious whether family size plays into the difference between local and statewide financial gaps, adding, “Most of our clients have families with multiple children and, with this, we see real poverty pressures.”

Others, like Bakersfield appraiser and home market tracker Gary Crabtree, focused more on housing costs.

He said by email some data that went into the United Way’s report appear outdated, and that if the United Way had taken recent inflation into account, Kern’s affordability picture would look even worse.

Data he shared indicates local housing affordability has fallen sharply in recent years. As things stood in May, just 30% of local households earning the area’s median income can afford a single-family home priced at Bakersfield’s median, according to data he tracks.

That affordability measure is 4 percentage points lower than a year earlier, and 15 points lower than in May 2021. Five years before that, Crabtree’s data shows, the home affordability figure was 57% — close to twice the share it was pegged at last month.

Pérez-Dowling said another lesson in this month’s United Way report is that grants intended to help households that are struggling provide only temporary help. Although grants may help them catch up on past months’ rent, she added, they don’t help tenants keep their heads above water for long.

Gascon said the biggest barriers for many households that struggle are housing and child care. Costs obviously need to be reined in, he said.

“We know what needs to be done,” he said. “It’s just, where is the political will?”


To Read Article on the Bakersfield Californian Website, click HERE.

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