Patricia Leigh Brown/California WatchAn ice cream vendor sells treats after school at in San Rafael's Canal area in Marin County.
Those wanting to check the socioeconomic pulse of the Canal area of San Rafael need only peruse the bulletin board at The Canal Alliance, a nonprofit center serving the neighborhood’s largely low-income Spanish-speaking population.
“Diabetes y Su Salud,” reads one flier about diabetes and health. “Cuartos de Renta,” says an advertisement for rooms for rent. Many Canal-area residents live in crowded apartments shared by multiple families, in which living rooms equipped with microwaves often are rented as a separate space.
In “A Portrait of Marin,” a report released last month by the Marin Community Foundation, which measures education, health and income disparities in the county’s 51 census tracts, the Canal area ranked lowest in community well-being. Wedged between Highway 101 and the bay, the neighborhood is a densely populated triangle of land that is predominantly Latino.
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The area’s low-lying 2½ square miles are home to about 12,000 people, as well as auto body shops and other light industries. The MS-13 street gang, dominated by Central American immigrants, has a criminal presence here, as does the 18th Street gang from Los Angeles. The typical Canal-area worker earns just a little more than $21,000 a year, roughly the same as the average earnings in the 1960s. Pickup trucks laden with ladders, rolls of carpet, paint tarps and other stuff of labor are a common neighborhood sight.
Ten minutes away, Christopher Martin, a council member for the Town of Ross, contemplated why his town ranked higher in well-being than any other community in Marin County.
“People here are very active,” he mused, referring to the town’s five parks, lake system and miles of walking paths astride Mount Tamalpais. “Because there is no mail delivery, people walk to the post office.”
In Ross, population 2,100, the police know most children in town by name. Martin estimates that more than half of the town’s residents, including many investment bankers, grow their own organic vegetables. They have the space: The typical residential lot in Ross is an acre or more.
That Marin County is a 1 percenters’ paradise is hardly breaking news. But the report, written and researched by the American Human Development Project, part of the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Social Science Research Council, explores Marin’s more subtle disparities, painting a nuanced portrait of poverty as well as wealth.
“We wanted to strike up a conversation,” said Thomas Peters, the community foundation’s president and CEO. “Marin stereotypes are held by many outside the county, but, insidiously, inside Marin as well.”
While civic boosters tout biotech and software as a way to stimulate economic recovery, the majority of the county’s job growth lies in low-wage service industries – laundry and dry cleaning, gardening, hair and beauty salons, pet care, and parking services. These are jobs for which the median pay is $23,500, “earnings that are roughly equal to the federal poverty line for a family of four,” according to the report.
In the Canal area, heavy on service workers, more than half the adults have not earned a high school diploma. Residents can expect to live 80½ years, 7½ years fewer than a resident of Ross, where 4 out of 5 adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education. Those opportunities are reflected in the town’s median individual earnings – $64,378, more than double the national average.
The report also found that although Marin has a higher preschool enrollment rate than any California county, the rate varies by race and ethnicity. Eighty-eight percent of white children attend preschool, compared with 47 percent of Latino children. A quality preschool education is widely considered a key factor in helping disadvantaged children enter elementary school on an equal footing with their peers.
Subsidized child care is another issue that seriously affects working families. Cheryl Paddack, executive director of the Novato Youth Center, which offers subsidized child care and other services, said state budget cuts are forcing difficult conversations with parents.
“For many families, especially parents working two or three jobs, subsidized child care is an essential service,” she said. With 58 percent of clients receiving the subsidies, “we’re now looking to have to release children,” she said. “These children are very vulnerable.”
To Michael Watenpaugh, superintendent of San Rafael City Schools, the Marin report is“ reflective of what we live every single day.” The majority of children in his district are poor students of color, half of them English learners.
That is why, beginning in elementary school, the district implements “No Excuses University,” a national college readiness network in which elementary school classes are “adopted” by a major college or university. Teacher diplomas are prominently displayed in the classroom, and students develop school loyalties, down to the fight songs. It is about raising expectations, he said.
“The first impression is that Marin is a wealthy community,” Watenpaugh said. “But if you dig in, you find a significant population of poor families here. And there is a very big need to address them.”
California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.