In summary

As California suffers from economic fallout due to the coronavirus, the stark difference between wealthy coastal areas and the Central Valley reveals the inequality of the state’s philanthropy.

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By Finn Dobkin, Special to CalMatters

Finn Dobkin works in municipal government, where he specializes in social safety net, behavioral healthcare, and urban planning policy,

Since Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide shelter-in-place order, food has been flying off grocery store shelves. As Californians enter full panic buying mode, the state’s food banks have been hit with a surge in demand from laid off workers that reveals the inequality of philanthropy across the state. 

Thanks to community partners, food banks located in the coastal metropolitan areas have done a surprisingly good job at coping with the sudden growing demands. Reports from Alameda County noted a five-fold increase in food requests, complemented by “unprecedented donations.” In Southern California, Disneyland donated its surplus food to Orange County food banks, all but ensuring a steady supply for the coming weeks.

The same cannot be said for California’s Central Valley, however. The growth in clientele,  combined with consumers buying more than their fair share at the grocery store, has led to dire shortages at Central Valley food banks. Some organizations, despite being located in one of the most fertile agricultural regions of the world, are halting operations altogether.

For those familiar with the philanthropic ecosystem of California, this shouldn’t come as a shock. On a per capita basis, Central Valley nonprofits receive about $131 annually. Conversely, nonprofits located in the wealthier Bay Area receive about $1,407 annually, more than a ten-fold difference. 

The irony here is hard to miss. It is true that much of the state will suffer from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 virus, however, the baseline economic and social indicators from the poorer regions of the state suggest that they stand to benefit more from private philanthropic dollars. 

Indeed, the regionally adjusted poverty rate for the Bay Area stands at just under 20%, compared to the Central Valley which is closer to 30%. Poverty aside, the average Central Valley resident can expect to live 4 fewer years than folks from the Bay Area. These numbers underscore the decades of neglect that the region has faced, both from the state and federal government, as well as from private philanthropy.

The stark inequality isn’t taking place in just the Central Valley. Nonprofits in the Sierra Range average $30.78 per capita in donations, while those in the Inland Empire can expect to receive just more than $103 per capita. 

The implications of these levels of philanthropic inequality cannot be understated. For one, the rate of return on investments in low-income communities, which just so happen to be the same ones that lack philanthropic dollars, is far higher than investing in wealthier communities. Indeed, the tax revenue generated from the wealthy Bay Area residents means that the local government is able to provide many of the social services that are often provided by private charities in lower income areas.

The corollary to this is that the demand for these services is higher in lower income areas. For example, 1 in every 2½ Fresno residents rely on Food Stamps for their nutrition. Meanwhile, 1 in every 18 San Franciscans use the program. Fresno’s higher levels of food insecurity would suggest that it should receive more philanthropic dollars. It does not.

Now, with an economy that is virtually shut down for many workers, the importance of the private sector social safety net is as important as ever. The strain on government resources will become greater as the weeks go on. Meanwhile, families who have lost their source of income will continue to suffer. But with California’s attention focused on the wealthier, coastal areas, it is unclear as to whether or not the have-nots of the state will get the money they need.


Finn Dobkin works in municipal government, where he specializes in social safety net, behavioral healthcare, and urban planning policy,

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