San Mateo County’s economic inequality growing, new report says 

click to enlarge A Ferrari and Maserati dealership on the border of Atherton and Redwood City caters to affluent county residents. A stones throw away from poverty and crime-stricken East Palo Alto, it marks the dramatic differences between the have and have-nots in the area. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • A Ferrari and Maserati dealership on the border of Atherton and Redwood City caters to affluent county residents. A stones throw away from poverty and crime-stricken East Palo Alto, it marks the dramatic differences between the have and have-nots in the area.

San Mateo County shed more than 7,000 middle- and low-income households during a recent five-year period while the number of affluent ones grew by more than 10,000, according to a new study.

Between 2006 and 2011, the number of households in the county  earning more than $200,000 a year increased by more than 10,000, according to a study by Sustainable San Mateo County.

During the same period, households earning less than $100,000 a year decreased by about 7,000. The middle-income earners — about 5,600 households — accounted for the bulk of that roughly 7,000-household drop, the study said.

Those low- and middle-income households didn’t simply get rich in the past five years, said Adrienne Etherton, the executive director of the nonprofit that conducted the study. More likely, she said, they’re leaving.

The apparent flight of the lower- income households and the influx of affluence to the county highlights the county’s ongoing concerns with highly competitive labor markets, education and affordable housing.

“People are pushed to other counties because it’s affordable to live there,” said Linda Asbury of the San Mateo Area Chamber of Commerce.

One of the reasons affordable housing is scarce, says Rosanne Foust of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, was that there were very few housing units built between 2000 and 2010.

“It’s the basic economic principles of supply and demand,” Foust said.

There are not enough housing units to be affordable — even though there are several developments in progress, she said.

The highly competitive labor market is another possible reason for the low- and middle-income flight, Etherton said.

“There is a highly educated workforce, and those that don’t have that higher-level degree may have to settle for lower-paying jobs,” she said.

People who take lower-wage positions are often unable to afford to remain in the county, Etherton said.  

With San Mateo County employers  placing a premium on highly educated employees, it impacts who is employed.

“It’s a technology-driven world, especially the area we live in,” Foust said.

County officials are in the midst of crafting solutions to the growing income gap, Foust said. The San Mateo County Economic Development Association is working with workforce investment boards and other county organizations to study the problem, she said.

One critical piece of the puzzle is education from birth through age 5, Foust said.

“Education is vital at every age level, but if you catch them at birth, they start on a strong foundation,” Foust said.

The solutions are not about absolute equality, Foust said.

“There will never be a totally level playing field, that’s what America is all about,” Foust said. “If we didn’t all believe that we’d probably be living somewhere else.”

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