Poverty: The East County region is home to more than 87,000 men, women, and children who live below the federal poverty level (FPL). Half of them live in the region’s five largest cities and the other half in the vast rural area of mountains, deserts, Indian reservations, and small towns.

Poverty and Income
in East San Diego County

Analysis of regional data from the US Census Bureau 2015 5-year American Community Survey


Poverty in East County: One of every seven people living in the East County region of San Diego County – 14.1% of the population – lived in poverty during 2011-2015. The poverty rate varied across East County cities from 7.8% in Santee to 24.2% in El Cajon.

Children in Poverty: Children were particularly likely to live in households with below-poverty incomes throughout the region, especially in El Cajon and Lemon Grove.

Low Pay in Key Industries: Among the industries employing the most East County residents, the lowest incomes were in the Accommodation and Food Services, primarily hotels and restaurants. The median pay for East County residents employed in that industry was $24,093 a year for full-time, year-round work. More than half the jobs were part-time, with lower income.

Poverty: The East County region is home to more than 87,000 men, women, and children who live below the federal poverty level (FPL). Half of them live in the region’s five largest cities and the other half in the vast rural area of mountains, deserts, Indian reservations, and small towns.We analyzed 5-year Census data from 2015, the most recent available, and found that the region’s poverty rate averaged 14.1% of the population. The FPL varies by family size. For a family of four anywhere in the US, the poverty threshold in 2015 was an annual income of $24,036.

Economic hardship: Since the national poverty measure is not adjusted for the high cost of living in San Diego County,* we also analyzed the share of the population with incomes below 200% of the FPL, a more realistic count of the families and individuals living in economic hardship. Altogether, 33% of the East County population of 622,518 lived in poverty or economic hardship.

Poverty and Economic Hardship in East County, five-year averages (2011-2015)

El CajonLa MesaSanteeSpring ValleyLemon GroveEntire East County regionSan Diego County
Poverty Rate24.2%12.4%7.8%12.0%15.1%14.1%14.5%
Number of people in poverty24,4027,2414,2953,6213,93187,604454,876
Economic Hardship Rate47.9%29.8%18.9%31.9%39.4%33.2%32.7%
Number of people in economic hardship48,24717,35510,4009,63810,232206,4481,029,266
NOTE: Poverty rate is the percentage of the population living below the federal poverty level (FPL). Economic hardship is the percentage with household incomes below 200% of FPL
* CPI “Making Ends Meet 2014” https://www.cpisandiego.org/making_ends_meet
2015 Income Thresholds
Family size examplesPoverty (FPL)Economic Hardship
1 person$12,082$24,164
Family of 4$24,036$48,072

Poverty by City, Age, and Race and Ethnicity

Poverty Rate Change by City in East San Diego County

Poverty rates in all East County cities remained higher than before the Great Recession, indicating that the recovery has not reached all families. The rate was highest and grew the most in El Cajon, where a quarter of the population lived below the federal poverty level.

Change in poverty rates in East County cities, pre-recession and 2015 (hover mouse or click to see percentages)

  • 2007
  • 2015

Poverty Rates among Children and Senior Citizens in East County Cities

Children of East County were more likely than adults to live in poverty, particularly in El Cajon, with a child poverty rate of almost 34%. Senior citizens had lower poverty rates than the overall population. For the entire East County region, 19% of children and 8% of seniors lived below the poverty line.

Poverty Rates among Children and Senior Citizens in East County Cities (hover mouse or click to see percentages)

  • Child (<18) Poverty Rate
  • Senior (65+) Poverty Rate


Poverty by Race and Ethnicity, in East San Diego County region vs. San Diego County overall:

Native American residents of East County were most likely to live in poverty, and Latino and Black residents also had poverty rates higher than the regional average of 14.1%. Compared to San Diego County overall, poverty rates in East County were higher for White and Native American residents and lower for other groups.

Poverty Rate by Race and Ethnicity, East County region vs. San Diego County overall (hover mouse or click to see percentages)

  • East County Region
  • San Diego County

Household Income and Housing Costs

The median – or midpoint – of all household incomes in East County was $61,841. Median household income varied widely, from a low of $45,925 a year in El Cajon to a high of $76,104 in Santee. Incomes were still below pre-recession levels everywhere except La Mesa, with the largest drop in El Cajon.

El CajonLa MesaLemon GroveSanteeSpring ValleyEast County RegionSan Diego CountyCity of San Diego
2015 Median Income$45,925$54,667$55,404$76,104$62,356$61,841$64,309$66,116
Change from 2007*, adjusted for inflation-$10,429+$266-$2,348-$915-$8,284n/a-$5,387-$2,683
*Pre-recession data is ACS 3-year data (2005-2007)

Income Inequality

One fifth of all households in East County received nearly half (47%) of all the income in the region. By contrast, the lowest income-earning fifth of households received only 4% of all income.

Housing costs and income:

The median cost of renting a 2-bedroom apartment in East County was $1,201, with the highest rent in La Mesa. Housing, the biggest expense in most family budgets, is considered unaffordable if it consumes more than 30% of household income. So an East County family needs an income of $48,040 a year, well above poverty level, to afford the median 2-bedroom rent without doubling up, relying on assistance, or cutting out needed items. Throughout the region, 60% of renters have incomes too low for the local housing costs.

Rent Affordability in East County Cities

El CajonLa MesaLemon GroveSanteeSpring ValleyEast County RegionSan Diego CountyCity of San Diego
Median gross rent - 2 bedrooms$1,164$1,354$1,201$1,306$1,297$1,201$1,363$1,473
Renters paying more than 30% of income for rent61%58%58%47%59%60%52%54%

Industries and Working Poverty

In the East County region, 35.6% of adults (age 16 and over) living in poverty had jobs, including more than 5,000 people who worked full-time all year and were paid less than the federal poverty threshold. More than half (54%) of households in poverty and nearly two-thirds (65.5%) of households in economic hardship had at least one family member who worked during the year.

Among the 10 industries employing more than 15,000 East County residents, the Accommodation and Food Services industry – primarily hotels and restaurants – had the lowest earnings. Median annual pay for East County residents employed full-time and year-round in that industry was $24,093. Half of the largest 10 industries had median full-time earnings below the $48,040 needed just to afford the median rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the region. Earnings are lower for employees with part-time jobs. In three service industries – Accommodation and Food Services, Educational Services, and Other Services – fewer than half of the jobs were full-time and year-round.

Annual Earnings of East County Residents Employed in Major Industries
Top 10 industries employing residents of East San Diego County, in order of median earningsNumber of East County residents employedMedian earnings for full-time, year-round work in 2015
Accommodation and Food Services23,462$24,093
Administrative, Support, and Waste Management Services15,909$30,756
Other Services17,322$34,447
Retail Trade37,538$34,857
Health Care and Social Assistance36,650$45,431
Construction27,439$50,435
Educational Services25,528$53,655
Manufacturing23,192$56,387
Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services21,782$67,785
Public Administration17,560$70,671

Methodology: Except where otherwise noted, data are from the Census Bureau’s 2015 5-year American Community Survey (ACS), which combines data collected in 2011-2015. The use of 5-year data was necessary to get reliable estimates for the smaller population cities in the region. East County regional estimates are based on analysis by CPI of 2015 5-year ACS data Public Use Microdata. We defined “East County” based on the Census Bureau’s 2010 Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs) 07302, 07307, and 07319, 07313, and well as PUMA 07314, which was weighted by a factor of 0.3987 to account for the portion of the population living in La Mesa within that PUMA. The 5-year ACS data includes data from 2011, at which time Census Bureau used 2000 PUMAs. From 2011, we included 2000 PUMAs 08103, 08106, 08108, and 08114. All years of regional data include the cities of El Cajon, Santee, La Mesa, and Lemon Grove, as well as unincorporated areas throughout East County including Spring Valley, Lakeside, Winter Gardens, Ramona, Alpine, and Jamul. We also used 5-year 2015 ACS Census data tables available separately for each city within the region and the largest unincorporated “Census designated place,” Spring Valley.