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What share of Bay Area residents are struggling financially?

Since the 1960s, the reduction of poverty in the United States has been a top policy priority, with numerous federal and state programs crafted to improve the economic conditions of low-income households. The U.S. Census Bureau sets a single poverty threshold for the entire country, which in 2021 was $13,788 for an individual and $27,740 for a four-person household. While the Bay Area has relatively high household income among all major metro areas, the cost of living is also far higher than in most of the country. Therefore, measuring the number of households below 200% of (or double) the federal poverty threshold can provide a better understanding of how many people in the region are struggling to make ends meet. While the Bay Area is a region of relative prosperity compared to the nation as a whole, poverty remains a vexing problem even in times of economic growth.

Updated: january 2023


of the region’s population lived in households with incomes below 200% of the poverty line in 2021


in the Bay Area lived in households with incomes below 200% of the poverty line in 2021


throughout all counties in the Bay Area had poverty rates above the regional rate in 2021


Regional Performance

The poverty rate in the Bay Area is at a historic low.

The Great Recession brought poverty levels to new highs, peaking in 2012 with nearly 27% of Bay Area households earning below 200% of the national poverty threshold. Poverty rates fell in all Bay Area counties between 2010s. A combination of a strong job market and lower income households leaving the region are thought to be possible reasons for the observed decreasing poverty rate, though additional research is needed to substantiate this hypothesis. Napa County experienced the biggest reduction, decreasing from a rate of 30% in 2010 to 20% in 2020.

While the share of Bay Area residents living in poverty increased in 2020 to nearly 19% due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the poverty rate in 2020 continued to be much lower than the 2012 peak. Furthermore, in 2021 the poverty rate continued its downward trend. In 2021, 1.4 million Bay Area residents still lived in poverty, highlighting the continued importance of affordable housing and job training opportunities for all Bay Area residents.


of Solano County residents lived in poverty, the highest rate for Bay Area counties in 2021


of San Mateo County residents lived in poverty, the lowest rate for Bay Area counties in 2021

Historical Trend for Poverty Rate

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Local Focus

Cities with high poverty rates can be found all throughout the Bay Area.

In 2021 there were 32 cities that had poverty rates above the regional rate and these cities can be found in every Bay Area county. Four of the top 10 cities with the highest shares of residents living in poverty were in Contra Costa County: San Pablo, Richmond, Antioch and Pittsburg. These cities all had poverty rates above 25%. However, Contra Costa County also had three cities with some of the lowest poverty rates in the region: Orinda, Clayton, Orinda and San Ramon. These cities all had poverty rates below 10%. This juxtaposition of high- and low-poverty communities within a county can be found throughout the Bay Area, often within very close proximity. For Alameda County in 2021, Oakland had the county’s highest poverty rate at 30%, while the neighboring city of Piedmont had the region’s lowest poverty rate at 5%. In San Mateo County, East Palo Alto had the county’s highest poverty rate at nearly 27%, while nearby Atherton had the county’s second lowest poverty rate at 6%.


of Piedmont residents lived in poverty, the lowest rate of any Bay Area city in 2021


of San Pablo residents lived in poverty, the highest rate of any Bay Area city in 2021

Poverty Rates for Counties, Cities, and Neighborhoods (2021)

Share of Population Below 200% of Poverty Level
0% - 10%
11% - 17%
18% - 25%
26% - 38%
39% +
Click on a shape on the map for more information.

National Context

In 2021, the Bay Area had a relatively low poverty rate among large metro areas in the nation.

Just under 19% of Bay Area households had incomes below 200% of the federal poverty threshold in 2021, which is one of the lowest among large metro areas in the nation. Large metro areas with some of the highest poverty rates include Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, Detroit and Dallas. In 2021, they all had poverty rates that are approximately 10 percentage points or more greater than the Bay Area.

Though the Bay Area’s poverty rate is relatively low compared to other regions, the region’s high cost of living presents significant challenges for low-income residents. Notably, the other two largest metro areas in California (San Diego and Los Angeles) also face high rents and living costs while having a significantly larger share of their residents in households with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty threshold.


In 2021, 33% of households in Miami had incomes below 200% of the federal poverty threshold, among the highest in the nation relative to large metro areas

Metro Comparison for Poverty Rate (2021)

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Sources & Methodology

Methodology Notes

The U.S. Census Bureau defines a national poverty level (or household income) that varies by household size, number of children in a household, and age of householder. The national poverty level does not vary geographically even though cost of living is different across the United States. For the Bay Area, where cost of living is high and incomes are correspondingly high, an appropriate poverty level is 200% of poverty or twice the national poverty level, consistent with what was used for past equity work at MTC and ABAG. For comparison, however, both the national and 200% poverty levels are presented.

For Vital Signs, the poverty rate is defined as the number of people (including children) living below twice the poverty level divided by the number of people for whom poverty status is determined. The household income definitions for poverty change each year to reflect inflation. The official poverty definition uses money income before taxes and does not include capital gains or non-cash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid and food stamps).

For the national poverty level definitions by year, see: US Census Bureau Poverty Thresholds.

For an explanation on how the Census Bureau measures poverty, see: How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty.

American Community Survey (ACS) 1-year data is used for larger geographies – Bay counties and most metropolitan area counties – while smaller geographies rely upon 5-year rolling average data due to their smaller sample sizes. Note that 2020 data uses the 5-year estimates because the ACS did not collect 1-year data for 2020.

To be consistent across metropolitan areas, the poverty definition for non-Bay Area metros is twice the national poverty level. Data were not adjusted for varying income and cost of living levels across the metropolitan areas.

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