MostlyTrueStatement: “El Cajon is the poorest city in the county,” said former state Sen. Wadie Deddeh in a June 9 Voice of San Diego op-ed.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: El Cajon has long been home to many of San Diego County’s poorer residents, but the city is now in the middle of a heated conversation about its future. Former state lawmaker Wadie Deddeh supports local government reforms being pushed by Neighborhood Market Association head Mark Arabo, including term limits for City Council members and median income caps for city officials.

“These measures are to make El Cajon better,” Deddeh wrote in an op-ed supporting Arabo. “They’re to clean up the culture of racism in El Cajon, to put a stop to the irresponsible excessiveness by the city’s officials while its citizens remain the poorest in the county. … El Cajon is the poorest city in the county, yet the city manager makes over $210,000 a year.”


Support Independent Journalism in San Diego Today

 Learn more about member benefits

If true, that means changes in El Cajon’s city government have the potential to affect the poorest population in San Diego County — a county with close to 9,000 experiencing homelessness.

Deddeh said he didn’t source his claim from a specific figure, but it’s true that El Cajon has the highest rate of poverty in San Diego County, at least in terms of the federal poverty line — about a fourth of El Cajon’s residents earn an income that falls below poverty level, or $11,770 per year for one person.

But the city of San Diego’s poverty rate has risen in recent years to 15.6 percent, and with a population 13 times that of El Cajon, that’s still a massive number of people struggling to make ends meet.

Poverty is difficult to define because of the number of variables that contribute to it. One marker isn’t enough to classify El Cajon’s residents as the poorest throughout San Diego County.

El Cajon is not the poorest in the region by another standard: median household income. The city’s median income is considerably higher than National City’s and hovers around the same level as incomes in Imperial Beach and Lemon Grove.

Median household income

Persons in Poverty

El Cajon City Manager Doug Williford said the reason El Cajon ranks better in household income than poverty rate is that while there are a lot of poor and homeless people in the city, average income is affected by income diversity.

“El Cajon is actually a real mix of just about everything — very upscale neighborhoods, upper-middle-class neighborhoods, middle class, then lower-income, which is focused in our older valley floor,” he said.

But that doesn’t change the fact that El Cajon still ranks close to the bottom in the region.

Marney Cox, chief economist for the San Diego Association of Governments, said two factors explain El Cajon’s and similar cities’ status: jobs and the price of housing.

There aren’t many high-salary jobs in the city, he said, and El Cajon’s abundant apartments and rentals drive down the cost of housing there. That tends to attract San Diegans who can’t afford to live elsewhere in the region.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

“You’ll find that El Cajon at one point in time, the ’60s and ’70s, was doing fairly well,” Cox said.

Williford said the downward trend was foreshadowed in the ’50s, when the city cleared the way for several large, cheap apartment buildings to be built in El Cajon’s central valley. Those developments weren’t brought to a halt until the ’80s.

“As long as those apartments still exist, the lower income numbers will likely continue to exist, regardless of the number of new jobs created or any other factor,” Williford said. “As people get better jobs and more income, they simply move to better housing and are, in turn, replaced by a different lower-income person or family.”

El Cajon has the second-highest unemployment rate in San Diego County at 6.9 percent, behind Imperial Beach. Countywide, unemployment is 4.8 percent.

Williford said El Cajon might reduce its unemployment soon, though, with three new car dealerships and plans for a new hotel, a 25-acre hospital campus and the reopening of the East County Performing Arts Center.

So yes, El Cajon has a high population of low-income, unemployed and homeless residents and San Diego County’s highest poverty rate. That makes Deddeh’s statement mostly true.

But poverty is affected by a host of factors, including income, employment, job quality and quality of life. El Cajon isn’t the worst-off city in the region when it comes to median household income or employment.

    This article relates to: Economy, Fact Check, Must Reads

    Written by Zoe Schaver

    Zoe Schaver is a 2015 summer reporting intern for Voice of San Diego. You can get in touch with her with comments, questions or offers of free food at 619-550-5672 or by email at zoe@voiceofsandiego.org.

    7 comments
    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    Congratulations on worst Graphics of the Week. Ever consider rotating the labels on the x-axis of those graphs?

    Nicola Hedge
    Nicola Hedge

    It would be interesting to see these charts with the City of San Diego broken into smaller areas - neighborhoods or planning areas - since it is so large compared to other cities. Does that exist somewhere?

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    The city manager could make 10 times what he's making now and it wouldn't change the median income of city officials. 

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    Good summary.  One missing element in this topic is the amount of non-reported income.  Cash income, black market income, whatever you call it, it is often higher in areas with high unemployment.  That makes areas like El Cajon, Lakeside and others look more prosperous than the reported or taxable income might indicate.  

    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    @Glenn Younger  Unreported income is specifically that, UNREPORTED. Thus, it can't make an area look any different on the statistics.

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    The primary reason not to use an income measure to talk about which city is poorest is that it is analytically incomplete.  It's the problem with only focusing on the revenue side of an individual's quality of life.  If you and I both make 37,000 per year but I have 37,000 in expenses and you have 0, one of us is doing dramatically better than the other even though our incomes are the same.  Probably a better statistic would have been to look at 200% of the federal poverty line across the region, which is still poor.  As it's possible that some other city has a higher percentage of poor people but the federal poverty line is so woefully inadequate to describe being poor that many don't get included.  Using that comparison, you may have found that the City of San Diego has a much higher percentage of people than El Cajon or National City in the band just above the federal poverty line who are nevertheless poor.  I'm not saying this would have happened, as I don't have any facts, but it would be a better analytical choice for comparison than looking at median income, which gives an incomplete picture.