By Erica Hellerstein, The Mercury News
When Michele Beserra looks at her 3-year-old granddaughter, she sees a warm, loving girl with light brown curls and a nurturing instinct—the kind of person she hopes will become a nurse or a community advocate.
But the 56-year-old Beserra becomes emotional when she thinks about her granddaughter’s new home: a tent on a plot of land in Watsonville, where the family will move this month because they can’t afford to rent anymore on her $400-a-month income. With her daughter and granddaughter, Beserra and her husband, who has been out of work for two years, plan to cook on a camp stove and bathe outdoors in a plastic pool on a ranch owned by a relative.
“We have stuff like we’re going camping. So that’s what we tell my beautiful little granddaughter when she asks us: ‘Nana, why do we have to move? Why?’” Beserra said, her voice cracking. “Because, I go, ‘we’re gonna go camping!’ It just breaks your heart when she asks why.”
The family’s story is not uncommon in Santa Cruz County, which has the second-highest child poverty rate in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Los Angeles County has the highest rate.
Experts say the statistics can largely be traced to high housing costs. But Santa Cruz County’s median household income of $79,704 is much lower than Silicon Valley’s and San Francisco’s, partly because the area’s dominant industries are hospitality and agriculture.
“On this side of the hill, wages are lower compared to what the cost of living is,” said county Supervisor Zach Friend. “In Santa Cruz County, to afford a two-bedroom apartment you would have to earn about $70,000 per year. That’s a lot of money.”
PPIC calculated poverty rates using the California Poverty Measure, which, unlike federal poverty statistics, take into account geographical differences in the cost of housing within the state, one of the major factors behind economic instability in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area. The organization analyzed statistics from 2014-2016, the most recent data available. It expects to release updated numbers within the coming weeks, but demographers don’t expect Santa Cruz County, with a child poverty rate of 27.2 percent, to gain much ground.
In the nine-county Bay Area, Marin and Napa counties had the worst child poverty rates — tied at 22.2 percent — followed by San Mateo at 21 percent, according to PPIC. Contra Costa County had the lowest child poverty rate, at 16.9 percent. Santa Clara County was slightly higher at 17.1 percent and Alameda County’s rate was 18.6 percent.
Even for families that are able to make rent or pay a mortgage, the high cost of housing in Santa Cruz County may put a strain on their ability to pay for other basic necessities, like food.
“One of the things that we are seeing is that people who would be considered middle class come in and use our services,” said Suzanne Willis, the development and marketing officer at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Santa Cruz, which serves roughly 55,000 people per month, half of whom are children. “We are in this area where we have low wages and a super high cost of living, and it’s making it hard for any family to survive.”
Social safety net programs may not capture all families who need support. To be eligible for CalFresh, the state’s primary food assistance program, a household of four needs to earn less than $4,184 per month. Households making more could find themselves caught between the cracks: Earning too much to be considered poor by official poverty metrics, but not enough to make ends meet after spending the bulk of their incomes on housing.
It’s not just the cost of shelter that can put families over the edge, Willis said. “The cost of food is high, gas is high, the rising cost of health care. So many families are just one layoff or illness away from financial disaster. It’s just a difficult place.”
Beserra is enrolled in CalFresh but also regularly stops by the food bank to pick up produce and other items she can’t afford with her food stamps.
She said the food bank has been a “lifeline” that has helped relieve the economic pressures placed on the family. Though she knows they have a tough road ahead, she’s more relaxed now than when she first found out they would have to move out of the three-bedroom house they were renting. She’s bringing her dog and cat to the ranch and found someone to adopt her 7-year-old goldfish once they relocate.
“I’m kind of at peace,” Beserra said. “I’m restful now compared to the way I was a couple months ago. I have my animals with me. My daughter. The grandbaby. When I look at her, it’s like, she gives me all the faith in the world to believe that there’s something better.”
Erica Hellerstein is a journalist at The Mercury News in San Jose working for The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.