Fresno County recorded one of the nation’s largest declines in the poverty rate in 2015, according to new data from the Census Bureau, but its 25.3 percent poverty rate still remains higher than it was before the Great Recession.
Fresno’s poor population shrank by more than 21,000 people between 2014 and last year, census data released last week shows.
While researchers say the decrease is a sign of economic recovery, one in four Fresnans remains in poverty. Local nonprofit leaders say that shows there still is a long road ahead.
Fresno had the sixth-largest poverty rate drop in 2015 among the top 100 largest metro areas in the country, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of the American Community Survey data. Nationwide, Brookings said, last year saw the largest single-year decline in the poverty rate since 1999. Typical household income simultaneously grew by more than 5 percent – the first increase since 2007.
In Fresno County, the poverty rate dropped 2.4 percent between 2014 and last year, and has decreased almost 4 percent overall from a decade high of 28.8 percent in 2013. More people were employed here last year than in 2014, despite the toll on jobs from the historic drought. The employment rate rose by nearly 2 percent to 54.8 percent last year.
Jeffrey Michael, director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, said 2015 brought the most significant improvement toward lifting people out of poverty than the country has seen in many years.
Fresno’s improvement still falls short of the pre-recession 2007 poverty rate of 20 percent.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Michael said. “We need to make similar progress for five or six years to really, substantially address the problem.”
But, he said, “it’s definitely good news.”
The federal poverty line for a single person in 2015 was just under $12,000 per year, and just over $24,000 for a family of four.
25.3 percent Fresno County’s poverty rate in 2015
The poverty rate for Fresnans of color is higher than for white residents, with 32.4 percent of Latinos and 20.4 percent of Asians last year living below the poverty line. The rate for white residents is 12.4 percent.
The Census Bureau estimates that 41.1 percent of black residents live below the poverty line, but the margin of error means the actual number could be as low as 35 percent and as high as 48 percent.
“I have to believe that we can do better,” said Brian Angus, CEO of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission. “Our vision is that all of our community members receive the support they need along their path to achieve self-sufficiency.”
Fresno’s poverty rate is much higher among children, though that rate also dropped last year. Still, if Latino children had the same poverty rate as white children, 46,000 fewer children would have lived in poverty last year, said Alissa Anderson, senior policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center.
Latino children are 2.5 times more likely than white children to be in poverty here, with 36.9 percent living below the poverty line last year. The picture is starker for young children: 43.6 percent of children under age 5 lived in poverty in 2015.
“There’s a lot of research showing the first few years of kids’ lives really matter. Kids are especially vulnerable to the effects of poverty,” Anderson said, citing as examples increased risk of health problems, developmental delays and academic challenges.
Fresno County has the third-highest poverty rate in California among the 40 largest counties, Anderson said. The No. 1 spot is held by Tulare County, followed by Merced County.
In Tulare County, the poverty rate last year was 27.6 percent, down slightly – by 1 percent – from the previous year. In 2007 before the recession, Tulare County’s poverty rate was 23.7 percent.
Mary Escarsega, executive director of the Visalia-based nonprofit Community Services Employment Training, said the improving economy has allowed her organization to create more opportunities for Tulare County residents.
“I’m hopeful these numbers will continue to go down. It can be really difficult,” she said, especially given the county’s agriculture base. She said the county is working hard to improve access to affordable housing, education and other services that pull people out of poverty.
The Census Bureau also released data on health insurance rates. In California, the portion of residents without insurance fell to 8.6 percent last year, and has fallen overall by half since 2013 – the largest decline in the nation, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.
Between 2014 and 2015, the percentage of people covered by health insurance increased in all 25 of the most populous metro areas nationwide. In Fresno, that rate increased by nearly 9 percent to 90.3 percent of the population covered by insurance.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of people the poor population shrank by.