The federal poverty level nationwide is a household income of under $25,100 for a family of four. But those below the real cost of living in certain areas are struggling, even if not under the poverty level.

According to a United Ways of California study, Santa Barbara County’s real cost of living is $76,579 for a family of four, and 37 percent of county residents live under this real cost measure, with 97 percent of families under that level having at least one working adult. It takes three full-time, minimum-wage jobs to achieve economic security for a family of four.

EconAlliance and United Way provided county data from the statewide report at the semi-annual Workforce & Literacy Initiative forum in October, hosted by Allan Hancock College.

Santa Maria/Orcutt has 49 percent of residents under the real-cost level, and median income is $65,493. South Coast median income is $86,183. Guadalupe median is only $41,907, and Lompoc’ is $46,728.

During a post-presentation roundtable, there was consensus on the following:

More families struggling mean more county program needs. More programs/services mean greater costs. The county needs a billion dollars every few years to cover this cost.

An accurate 2020 census is critical, as under-counting will impact services for a decade. There’s need for outreach to impacted populations. The county is addressing this by refining outreach strategies.

Unaffordable housing is key driver of living costs. Studies in San Diego and San Jose found that about 40 percent of the cost of a house is attributable to regulation. Higher-paying jobs are needed, with education and training for workers to qualify for those jobs.

Hancock College is addressing this through its partnership with University of La Verne to bring in four-year degrees. There are numerous career technical education programs in North County.

But why doesn’t North County have more well-paying jobs to pull families above the real-cost level?

According to 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, partly it’s a failure to connect different agenda topics in Board of Supervisors meetings at which there are discussions regarding program/service needs requiring funding, as well discussions of industry requests for development or expansion permits bringing potential new jobs.

A Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce official stated that many of our county issues are self-inflicted, demonstrating an unwillingness to consider the many pathways to economic vitality.

There are currently several energy companies seeking permits to develop or expand. Permit approvals under possibly the world’s most stringent regional environmental monitoring would help address North County needs for more high-paying jobs, and the countywide need for more tax and charitable dollars to support education, public safety, key programs and services.

Other key industries also offer good jobs. Construction provides many head-of-household jobs. Agriculture, wine and tourism frequently offer well-paying technology, marketing, supervision or management jobs. But often these additional jobs cannot materialize because of permitting delays/denials, onerous regulations, various environmental mandates or other ordinances.

A family-wage job keeps a family above the real-cost level without the head-of-household working more than one job. Key North County industries provide high-paying jobs, tax revenues and community contributions that keep our communities thriving. According to experts, real job growth over time comes from local business expansion. If every conversation about helping our struggling local families included a discussion about how to support or foster creation of high-wage jobs in our key industries, all our local families and communities would have a brighter future.

Victoria Conner is EconAlliance Initiatives director and co-lead, Northern Santa Barbara County Workforce Development and Literacy Initiative.

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