Sheriff Expresses Concern Over Poverty Issues

By Ross Mirkarimi
San Francisco Sheriff

Poverty in San Francisco is quietly growing unchecked. As one of the wealthiest cities in the country, San Francisco’s budget for fiscal year 2012-13 of $7.9 billion surpasses the budgets of 11 states.

No matter how robust our local economic recovery portends, an honest assessment about poverty will remain impoverished as long as City Hall relies on antiquated economic measures.

It’s time to ditch our disproportionate reliance on federal standards and reassess how we calculate poverty in San Francisco.

A new poverty calculation developed by the Stanford Center on Poverty and the Public Policy Institute of California, the California Poverty Measure, expands the range of expenses and adjusts housing costs geographically.

Under this more comprehensive analysis, the poverty rate for California is 22 percent, and for San Francisco, 23.4 percent.

According to analysts with San Francisco’s office of controller, even with various local safety net adjustments, for a family of four renting in San Francisco, poverty registers at an annual income of $36,349.

The biggest takeaway from a discussion about poverty has little to do with the data itself-it’s the fact that we know what to do but are not doing it.

This reality was brought into sharper focus Jan. 10 (2014) for a growing underclass exiting our County Jail. I had the honor of presiding over the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Five Keys Charter High School graduation. We are the first city or county in the nation to provide a high school in its jails, a school with a union faculty.

More than 80 women and men, ages 19 to 59, about half in custody and half formerly incarcerated, were feted for obtaining their high school diploma or GED. The graduates’ stories of overcoming adversity and righting their wrongs were incredible. One man concurrently mastered his English as a second language certificate and his GED. A mother overcame her dislike for algebra to test exceptionally well toward her diploma.

It was their day, and ours, as I shared: “Orange is the new black when you don our cap and gown.” But beyond the milestone of a high school diploma, we’re reminded that unless there is affordable access to City College or another similar institution, or vocational training aimed at gainful employment, coupled with life skills for community re-entry, then we’re looking at recycling another generation through poverty.

Because 35 to 40 percent of our inmate population are parents, their incapacity to reach economic sustainability traps their children in a similar cycle.

San Francisco is in the unique position of having one of the most under-crowded jail systems in the country. Progress on tackling high recidivism rates is on the upswing—thanks to the collaboration among our criminal justice partners. However, preparing inmates for the real world is so undermined by the high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area that many will return to their families or communities discouraged by their inability to make a decent living or find respectable housing.

Before and after they exit jail in pursuit of a job, we’ll teach the soft and hard skills: Thrift. Determination.

Invariably, though, we’re invigorating a growing class of working poor if we neglect to address the real cost of living and its resulting measure of poverty in San Francisco.

Here is what we can do (about) poverty in San Francisco:

  • Take the politics out of raising the local minimum wage, and stepladder increases over 10 years.
  • Establish an official county poverty rate and methodology to determine it for San Francisco.
  • Develop a city master plan on ending poverty and retaining class diversity.
  • Produce a meaningful response to the mass exodus of San Francisco’s Black population and to the prospective impact on the Latino population.
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