About 335,000 more Californians were living below the poverty level in 2011 than the previous year, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Thursday.
While numbers for Tuolumne and Calaveras counties aren’t yet available, local nonprofits say they’ve seen dramatic increases in the number of individuals and families in need over the past year.
The new report found 16.6 percent of Californians (about 6.12 million) were living in poverty last year, which is up from 15.8 percent (about 5.78 million) in 2010. The overall national poverty rate was at 15 percent of people (about 46.25 million) in 2011, down slightly from 15.1 percent in 2010.
However, the change in the national rate was not considered “statistically different” from 2010 because the survey has a 0.2 percent margin of error.
Statewide figures were based on the 2010 and 2011 American Community Surveys, which compare the poverty rates for the nation, states and large metropolitan areas. Single-year estimates for Tuolumne and Calaveras counties were not available because the surveys only tracked areas with a population of 65,000 or more.
The most recently recorded poverty rates for the two counties were in 2010, when the rate was 14.2 percent of people (5,690) living in Tuolumne and 11.3 percent (4,704) living in Calaveras.
If the ever-growing number of people seeking food assistance at the Resource Connection Food Bank in San Andreas is any indication, then the poverty rate for Calaveras County could be higher next year when three-year estimates are released.
Only counting the people who go directly to the San Andreas food bank and not one of the other 14 food pantries across the county, the Resource Connection served 6,796 individuals — representing 2,637 families — from July 1 of last year to June 30, according to Director Jeannie Hayward.
With a total population in Calaveras County of about 46,000, that’s nearly 15 percent of the total population who sought food assistance from the single food bank over the 12-month period.
“I would say that us serving 15 percent of Calaveras County is a pretty good indicator,” Hayward said.
The number of families served each month has skyrocketed over the years as more struggle to find jobs and run out of unemployment, she said.
For example, the food bank served an average of 71 families per month in 2008, while 1,071 families were served in April 2012 alone. But Hayward said community efforts have helped the food bank weather the increased demand.
“I can say unequivocally that our community is very generous,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the generosity of our community, people would be getting very little from our food bank.”
Meanwhile, food banks in Tuolumne County saw a similar spike in clients over the past year.
Cathie Peacock of Interfaith Community Social Services in Sonora said the organization has seen a steadily increasing average number of families coming to the food bank for monthly assistance with seemingly no end in sight.
In 2009, the monthly average was 643 families, but that grew to 720 the following year. In 2011, about 760 families on average were served each month. Now, the faith-based organization is seeing an average of 40 families each day, with a total of 820 families served last month.
“I think that’s a substantial increase,” Peacock said.
Although the unemployment rate in the county has been slowly declining over the past year, Peacock said the growing amount of people in need could be attributed to those whose unemployment has run out or to retired seniors who are coming to the food bank more often.
Senior citizens is the fastest growing demographic Interfaith serves, accounting for about 50 percent of all clients, Peacock said.
“That tells us there are some problems with the aging population up here,” she said.
One bright spot has been the community’s response as more have been donating what they can whether it be money, food or just their time, according to Peacock.
“If it weren’t for the community doing different kinds of projects for support, I think we would really be struggling,” she said.
That same community rallying is being experienced at Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, where clients have more than doubled since the Great Recession began in 2008, said Lee Kimball, ATCAA Food Bank director.
Kimball said the organization saw reports of the looming recession and teamed up with other nonprofits like Sonora Area Foundation to organize the community. Those efforts brought in more than 1,000 volunteers, which helped the food bank when the recession finally hit.
“In the years I’ve been doing this job, I’ve never had to convince people anything needed to be done,” she said. “I just had to be specific about what we needed and the community has always faithfully responded.”
However, predictions of a possible economic disaster in 2013 have Kimball and ATCAA on edge once again.
“I totally don’t believe in scare tactics, but if that cliff happens then we will have some real stressors,” she said, adding the organization also lost a $167,000 federal grant for next year due to spending cuts.