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1 in 4 people in Imperial County live in poverty

File: Former boat launches no longer connect with the Salton Sea in Imperial County, as seen on April 19, 2015.
The Washington Post/Getty Images
Imperial County, CA.

While poverty is easing across the nation as Americans continue to recover from the Great Recession, areas of California remain intractably poor. The poorest region in Southern California is Imperial County, where one in four people lives in poverty, according to new census data.

Imperial County has the third-highest poverty rate in the state, after Fresno and Tulare counties, according to 2016 numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau. Children in Imperial County are even worse off, with one in three living in poverty, a slightly higher rate than in 2015.

The area's service providers struggle to keep up with the demand for assistance, said Ken Wuytens, executive director of the United Way of Imperial County.

"We try to work on projects, but a lot of it turns into emergency help," he said. "You don't want to let the power get turned off when it's 120 degrees out."

In Imperial County, which had a slight downtick in overall poverty, there's a pile-on of issues, starting with a lack of jobs. 

"Unemployment and underemployment," Wuytens said. "It was 'good news' when the unemployment rate hit 22 percent." 

That was earlier this summer. As of July, it was back over 24 percent, according to the state's Economic Development Department. That's the worst unemployment level in the state.

"We're several years into an economic expansion and we've seen the least progress in Imperial County," said Alissa Anderson of the California Budget & Policy Center. 

Farms, which have traditionally supplied labor in the region, are disappearing, said Ken Woods of Catholic Charities.

"Farmers are getting paid to rent or lease their property to the solar companies," he said. "We need more funding, and get those who are doing services here to consolidate so we can focus on serving everyone, not just sub-populations."

Homelessness is also a growing concern. As of the last count, conducted in January, the number of homeless in the county had tripled since the year before to 1,071, the vast majority living outdoors and in makeshift shelters. Better counting partially explains the rise, Woods said, but not all of it.

The biggest concentration was in what's known as "Slab City," a set of concrete slabs left behind when the U.S. Marine Corps dismantled Camp Dunlap in 1956.  The site has attracted squatters ever since, though it has no sewers, running water, electricity or garbage collection. 

Woods said the county needs more funding from the Department of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to effectively combat the problem. 

Anderson said that's unlikely—current budget proposals floating around the U.S. Congress call for cuts to HUD and other social services, like food stamps. 

"Any cuts would drive our high poverty rate even higher," she said. 

The official poverty rate for California is 14.3 percent, a figure experts say underestimates how many people are struggling to get by. The official poverty rate is calculated solely by income level—meaning the threshold for a parent with two kids is $19,300 a year, whether that family lives in low-cost Mississippi or high-cost California. When cost of living is factored in, California's poverty rate shoots up to 20 percent, the highest rate of any state in the nation (although Washington D.C.'s is higher). 

But the official 2016 rate is down, about 1 percentage point, from 2015 —a good sign, said Anderson.

"It's the fourth year in a row that it fell," she said. "It's certainly good news, and it suggests that we're seeing improved living standards in California."

But she said California, unlike the nation as a whole, has not yet returned to pre-recession poverty levels - the state's 2007 rate was 12.4 percent. And while some counties, like Orange and San Bernardino, have seen improvements, other areas in Southern California, like Los Angeles and Riverside counties, saw their poverty rates remain basically flat from 2015 to 2016.

"It's not clear exactly why we haven't seen these gains in parts of the L.A. region," Anderson said. 

The newly-released Census figures were available for counties with at least 65,000 residents.