The Effects of Income Inequality on the Bay Area Youth Sector

A Gardner Perspective by Amy Gerstein


Amy Gerstein

This year marks the turning point in my life: I have officially lived in California longer than anywhere else. When asked where I’m from, I typically lead with my New York heritage. In truth, I have been living, working, and learning in the San Francisco Bay Area for well over two decades. That is why, given the longevity of my work in this community, I should not have been so surprised by the results of a recent Gardner Center analysis of the youth sector in six Bay Area counties. While I have observed plenty of change in the region over time, the widespread and pernicious effects of income inequality currently impacting youth and their families astonished me.

The San Francisco Bay Area conjures images of natural beauty, ethnic diversity, scientific innovation, entrepreneurship, and prosperity. Indeed, the Bay Area is home to Silicon Valley and the birth of the modern technological revolution. More than seven million people live in the greater Bay Area, and many people migrate into the region seeking opportunity. Some of the country’s most successful companies and resultant wealth are here in the Bay Area — think Facebook, Google, Pixar, and more.

However, in close proximity to those living in affluence are those living in extreme poverty, a neighborhood dynamic that has become substantially more prevalent over the last decade. And the degree of inequality affects all aspects of life for families, creating challenges that undermine communities, schools, and the educational attainment of youth.

Over the last 30 years, the Bay Area’s population has grown dramatically in scope and diversity. At a county level, we perceive the changes in total population in gross numbers. In Santa Clara County, for example, the population grew by almost 500,000 people during this period, and the demography of the entire county shifted. The percentage of Whites and African Americans declined and the percentage of Latinos and Asians increased. Nearly 100 languages are now spoken in the county, and 37% of residents are foreign-born. We can also see that income inequality is a growing concern across this region. The average income of the top quintile of households is now estimated at approximately $530,000, while households at the bottom quintile earn roughly $19,000. In addition, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, more than 180,000 Santa Clara County residents are undocumented immigrants. About 36% of these immigrants live below the poverty threshold and may not qualify for important services such as Medi-Cal.

When the view is local, the picture of poverty and inequality becomes even more concerning. Within all the counties we studied, cities and neighborhoods demonstrate enormous variation. Alameda County is an example. County wide, 18% of adults and 20% of children live in poverty; however, 21% of adults in the city of Oakland live in poverty, compared to 14.5% in Hayward and 6.4% in Fremont. Investigating poverty levels by ethnicity also demonstrates vast stratification. In San Francisco, for example, 49% of African Americans live in poverty compared to 17% of Latinos, 13% of Asians, and 3% of Whites.

A neighborhood comparison also demonstrates that where one resides influences one’s health. For example, as compared to other cities in Contra Costa County, the city of Richmond has higher rates of health problems related to its longstanding environmental toxic waste issues. The city of Oakland is comprised of hills and flats that correspond to higher and lower levels of wealth. Those living in the hills have lower rates of chronic conditions such as asthma, and higher anticipated life spans than those people who live in the flats. Some researchers observe that high poverty families living in close proximity to high wealth families are likely to experience higher levels of stress related to their poverty level.

Income inequality affects youth’s educational attainment in multiple ways, and more Bay Area schools are now challenged to address the consequences of poverty. These consequences create sometimes insurmountable barriers to learning. Schools are held accountable for many more students with diverse needs than ever before, and with fewer resources.

From our analysis, I now understand that schools cannot do it alone anymore.

The varied approaches that some schools have adopted to engage with partners to better meet families’ needs will have to become the norm. Far too many youth arrive at school hungry and unable to concentrate. Far too many lack a home with a quiet place to study — let alone have internet and technology access. Far too many face chronic health conditions and so much more. These challenges manifest in schools as attendance problems, disciplinary issues, academic underperformance. To address these circumstances, there are many strong practices underway, a notable example being the community school model that some districts have embraced.

It will take many of us working collaboratively to develop short- and long- term strategies to address the consequences of poverty and inequality. At the Gardner Center we believe in a youth sector approach where colleagues work across “siloed” agencies to find ways to help families in service of common goals. There are many assets on which to build in our Bay Area. We have seen the potential and the promise and we know there is more to be done.