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SAN FRANCISCO —To hear the economists tell it, San Francisco is in the midst of another high-tech boom that is helping to power an economic recovery around California and the U.S. as a whole.
But spend some time at Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin district, in line with people waiting for a free meal, and another reality quickly emerges: For many San Francisco residents, especially those at the margins, the Great Recession drags on and on.
There’s Todd Meshekey, who became homeless for the first time about five months ago, after breaking up with his girlfriend. He was having a hard time affording a place of his own because the casino business operated by the Odawa tribe in lower Michigan, of which he is a member, had taken a big hit. "The recession reduced the amount of income [I received] from my tribe," he explained.
James Steele, who looked to be in his 20s, has been struggling since 2008, when he was laid off from his seasonal job at Walmart. He now lives on the street, near City Hall. “There are too many applications [for jobs] and not enough people," he said, adding: "I've been to places that don't even let me turn in an application."
The experiences of Meshekey and Steele are reflected in new data from the San Francisco Distress Index, a joint project of New America Media and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. The just-released report shows that, for many of the city’s residents, the recession has been “troublingly persistent,” says Christopher Wimer, a Stanford researcher who helped develop the index.
“We had hoped this would turn into a ‘recovery index,’” Wimer said. But more than a year after the official end of the recession, he added, an analysis of nine key economic indicators shows that, in important ways, “very little in San Francisco has changed.”
Indeed, from July through February, the city saw a 17 percent jump in requests for homeless assistance under the state’s CALWorks program, Wimer said. The homeless assistance number was the biggest reason the Distress Index has held virtually steady since last fall, he said.
Other key measures of the city’s continued economic distress include increased enrollment in the Healthy San Francisco medical care program and in CALWorks, the state’s welfare program. The index also shows that bankruptcies and food stamp applications are ticking up again after several months of flatness or decline.
On the positive side, the city has seen a small drop in claims for jobless benefits and flat enrollment in the Healthy Family low-cost insurance program, Wimer said. But even those glimmers of good news were less encouraging than they might seem, he added. For example, the improvement in the jobless numbers “may be partly driven by people who have stopped looking for jobs and who have run out of unemployment benefits,” Wimer said.
A Tale of Two Economies
Another way to look at it is that the rich are getting richer but the poor are not, Wimer said. Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy (CCSCE), a private think tank in Palo Alto, agreed.
“It’s not correct to say that San Francisco has a stagnant economy,” Levy said. He cited several signs of a strong recovery: falling unemployment figures; the sudden, surprise uptick in state tax revenues from wealthy Californians, many of them from the Bay Area; and the hugely successful public offering of stock in the social media site LinkedIn. “San Francisco is one of the [economic] leaders,” he said.
Indeed, on Friday, there was more good news: California's seasonally adjusted jobless rate dipped to 11.9 percent in April, the lowest figure since August 2009.
But Levy acknowledged that in San Francisco, as elsewhere, “the recovery has not spread as much as we need it to.” He said the new Distress Index report, coupled with the more positive indicators, is “the tale of two economies in one city.”
A Groundbreaking Tool
The S.F. Distress Index, developed with funding from the San Francisco Foundation and the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, is the first tool of its kind in the U.S. It measures the economic condition of the middle-class and poor in individual cities and towns by pooling together the most up-to-date data from a wide range of social services agencies and other local sources. Plans are in the works to create similar indexes for cities around California to compare both the continuing impact of the recession and the pace of recovery.
There’s no doubt that the recession has been especially devastating in cities like Stockton, Fresno, and Modesto, where joblessness has hovered over 18 percent and foreclosure rates are among the highest in the U.S.
But the Distress Index shows that San Francisco has been harder hit by the downturn than many people realize. When the index made its debut last October, it showed that—three years after the start of the Great Recession in December 2007—the city was still worse off than it had been at the peak of the dot-com bust in the early 2000s.
In many ways, that situation continues, even as the tech industry is once again thriving, fueled by San Francisco-based companies such as Twitter, Zynga and Square. In April 2011, the city’s jobless rate was 8.5 percent, down from 9.1 percent in March but still significantly higher than the dot-com era peak of 7.5 percent in July 2003.
New Homeless Census Shows Growing Problem
The latest Distress Index report also mirrors the results of a new homeless census conducted by the city in January and released May 19. The count, by the city’s Human Services Agency, found a 15.7 percent increase in the number of homeless families compared with 2009 and a 48 percent jump in the number of homeless single people, many of them living in cars and vans. In the historically black Bayview-Hunter’s Point area of the city, the homeless population surged by 159 percent.
“We have families living in pretty horrendous conditions, living in garages, doubled and tripled up, moving from place to place,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. She reported a noticeable rise in the number of elderly homeless and a tripling of the number of families on the waitlist for the city’s shelters. “It’s pretty intense."
For Robert Magiff, a tall African-American man who was waiting in line for spaghetti and hamburgers at Glide, homelessness is nothing new. He spent some time on the streets in 2005, and eventually recovered enough to attend San Francisco City College for a while. But the Great Recession has been a major setback, and despite his carefully dressed appearance, he is homeless once more.
“I feel like I am still getting drowned underneath the wheels," he said.
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