Last fall Santa Barbara County commissioned a report to identify the impacts of the Great Recession on the county. The resulting report, A Snapshot of Poverty, provided an eye-opening look at the biggest issue facing our county — poverty and the barriers to economic mobility. The report is particularly sobering for those of us serving the northern half of the county. A Snapshot of Poverty details the reality of children in the Allan Hancock College service area. Almost three-quarters of all Santa Barbara children living in poverty live in our community college district. Moreover, if the data-reporting anomaly of students living in Isla Vista is considered, Lompoc and Santa Maria account for 85 percent of all county residents living in “high poverty areas.”
A key mission of Allan Hancock College (AHC) is to build the “economic vitality” of our community. We do this by providing students with training that leads to employment in areas that pay above-average salaries. We are educating future nurses, police officers, firefighters, welders, auto technicians, and machinists who will leave AHC and find jobs in our local industries. A visit to any manufacturer, hospital, or public safety agency in our area finds AHC graduates throughout the organization.
At AHC we are doing more than helping people overcome incredibly difficult odds — we are changing the odds for residents of northern Santa Barbara County. Last month we awarded degrees to more than 850 students and another 1,000 earned certificates. Still, this just the first step toward tackling our persistent poverty issue.
Persistent poverty can only be addressed by building a system that allows for economic mobility. According to the UCSB Economic Forecast, job growth in Santa Barbara County through 2020 will be dominated by low-wage jobs such as farm laborers, personal care aides, and the service industry. Of the 10 fastest growing jobs for the next six years, only one (registered nurse) pays more than the median county salary while four of the top 10 barely register at half of the median salary.
If, as suggested by A Snapshot of Poverty, the North County must take steps to attract “large numbers of jobs with family-sustaining wages, mobility and decent benefits,” then there is a real need to ensure that there is a diverse industry base for well-trained residents. The multiplier effect created by high wage jobs sustains a robust economy, reducing the need for social services and building the tax base that funds our educational system. If we are serious about changing the odds for the impoverished children of northern Santa Barbara County, we must invest in a strong economic infrastructure that is underpinned by industry and manufacturing jobs.
Kevin Walthers is superintendent and president of Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.