Luz Garcia has been unemployed for a year. The Redwood City woman and her two children live in one room that she rents for $600 a month in someone else’s home.
Bernie Martinez of Foster City was making a six-figure salary at a title company. He arrived at work one day last year to find a note on the door saying the company was shutting down. He did not receive his final paychecks. Sixteen months later, he still hasn’t found a job.
Nzinga Regan is a bus driver for the Ravens-wood City School District. She’s heard rumors of layoffs because of the district’s financial troubles. She and her five children live in a house owned by her ex-husband. The bank may foreclose on him, she said, leaving the family to find other housing that she’s not sure how she’ll afford.
The three were among hundreds who attended a county-sponsored public assistance fair in November. The line for the morning event was so long that it wrapped around a Redwood City block.
The residents were in need of basic services and support: food, housing, clothes and health care. Many were helped, but the demand exceeded expectations: hours later, dozens at the end of the line were turned away.
Within the Bay Area, San Mateo County has enjoyed a reputation as a wealthy suburb, buoyed by a bounty of technology, pharmaceutical and agricultural wealth. The county had the third-highest median home price in California — $580,000 — just behind San Francisco and Marin counties, according to October data from DataQuick, a San Diego real estate research firm.
Nonetheless, San Mateo County and its residents have still been affected by the weight of the nation’s economic downturn.
More than 9 percent of the populace is out of work — twice what it was a little over a year ago, according to state and federal labor statistics. In the past year, the county has received hundreds of additional requests for public assistance.
However high, the median home price is down 9.38 percent from the same time last year, according to DataQuick, and the number of notices of default — the first step in the foreclosure process — has increased in the last several years.
While the recession has proved painful for many families, the county, one of the wealthiest in the state, has also been forced to tighten its belt. The Health and Human Services Agency, which is tasked with aiding the county’s needy, is sustaining an 11 percent job vacancy rate because it can’t afford to fill the positions, according to County Manager David Boesch.
“It is a struggle,” Boesch said.
Among challenges is finding work for 35,500 people — 12,000 more in the unemployment lines than there were in June 2003, the height of the region’s dot-com bust. Many of those out of work are having trouble making mortgage and rent payments as a result.
San Mateo County’s poverty rate is about 6 percent, the lowest of any of California’s 58 counties. But that rate portrays a false impression that residents are getting by — many still struggle due to the cost of living on the Peninsula, said Health and Human Services spokeswoman Amanda Kim. The federal poverty rate — about $22,000 for a family of four — barely pays the rent in a county where the average two-bedroom apartment rents for more than $1,700, according to the county’s housing department.
“There are a lot of people who don’t come close to qualifying for public assistance but who definitely live from paycheck to paycheck, and the stability of their family can be disrupted by one event, whether that’s a spike in the mortgage payment, a health care cost, a broken car,” Kim said. “We are every month dealing with families who don’t have utilities, who are experiencing food insecurities.”
In San Mateo County, the demand for safety-net services has increased 24 percent over last year, and that had been a 24 percent increase over the previous year, said Kim.
Sujata Verma, an economics professor at Belmont’s Notre Dame de Namur University, said many people have no idea their neighbors may be challenged to feed their children.
“You never think about hunger, about the fact that so many households are struggling to put food on the table is something that’s pretty shocking,” she said.
Bernie Martinez said he suddenly lost his job 16 months ago and never imagined himself in a situation where he’d be struggling to send child support payments for his son, who lives in Philadelphia with Martinez’s ex.
Martinez applies for jobs every day and has managed to be a finalist for many positions, but has yet to secure a job.
“When I first lost my job, I thought to myself, ‘I’ll find another one.’ But time kept going, and 16 months later, I’m still unemployed,” he said. “It’s hard to wake up and face the day sometimes.”
Safety net about to grow a bit wider
As part of the federal economic stimulus plan, between now and September the government will allow people who make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline to sign up for food stamps, temporary cash assistance, help with utility payments and other crucial services.
This is particularly important on the Peninsula, where the cost of living is high and many people make more than the levels set by the federal government but still have trouble providing for their families, said Amanda Kim, spokeswoman for the San Mateo County Health and Human Services Agency.
For example, under the 2009 poverty guidelines, a family of four that makes more than $22,050 per year doesn’t qualify as being in “poverty.” That prevents them from being eligible for many federal assistance programs.
It’s difficult to imagine any family maintaining a household for that amount on the Peninsula, Kim said.
Now, the county will be allowed to provide assistance to a family of four that makes up to $44,000 — still a barely livable wage in San Mateo County.
The expanded help will expire on Sept. 30, so county workers are in a rush to reach families who were previously considered too “wealthy” for federal assistance, she said.
— Katie Worth
Who is poor?
The federal poverty level determines who qualifies for various forms of public assistance. Poverty guidelines for the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia in 2009:
|Persons in family||Poverty level|
For families with more than 8 persons, add $3,740 for each additional person.
Notices of mortgage default
||Q4 ’07||Change ’06-07||Q4 2008||Change ’07-08|
Source: San Mateo County
Losing their value
Home prices in San Mateo County — along with the rest of the Bay Area — have declined.
|Sales volume||Median price|
|County||Mar ’08||Mar ’09||Change||Mar ’08||Mar ’09||Change|
Source: San Mateo County
Requests for public assistance — Food Stamps, CalWORKS and general public assistance — increased 52% from June of 2008 to June 2009
Source: County of San Mateo Human Services Agency
Jobless rate climbing
Unemployment rates in San Mateo County have increased more than fourfold in the last decade.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, California Employment Development Department