A County-by-County Look at Poverty in California

Today marks 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty. The CBP yesterday released an analysis of where California stands in the fight against severe economic hardship. This analysis finds that while safety-net policies have kept millions of Californians out of poverty, reducing poverty remains a crucial challenge in our state, especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Last year, nearly 16 percent of Californians — 6 million — lived in poverty. And the child poverty rate is even higher, with 22.5 percent of the state’s children — 2.1 million — living in families with incomes below the federal poverty line, an income of $18,498 for a family of three with two children.

While progress has been made in the War on Poverty, there is more work to do. And this is especially clear when looking at poverty by county, as we have done to expand on yesterday’s brief. As the map below shows, poverty rates vary significantly across the state, and many areas are experiencing economic conditions that are far worse than the overall state numbers show. In the years 2008 through 2012, California’s poverty rate was 15.3 percent. But county poverty rates ranged widely, from a low of 7.4 percent in San Mateo County to a high of 24.8 percent in Fresno County and Tulare County. In other words, nearly one in four residents of Fresno County and Tulare County lived in poverty at some point during those five years.

(Table with full county data and map — PDF)

The high rates of poverty in many areas of the state show a clear need for a sustained policy response to economic hardship in California. As policymakers begin the process of crafting a new state budget this week, they should strive for policies that will help the state make further progress in the War on Poverty.

As a starting point, this means strengthening policies that have been shown to work. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, safety-net policies have kept hundreds of thousands of Californians — especially children — out of poverty. The SNAP/CalFresh Program, which provides modest food assistance to low-income families, helped nearly 800,000 Californians — including 380,000 children — escape poverty in 2011. That same year, the CalWORKs Program, which provides cash assistance to low-income families along with welfare-to-work services to help parents find jobs, helped lift 470,000 Californians — about half of them children — out of poverty.

Strengthening and reinvesting in programs such as these will be key to reducing economic hardship in our state, as will efforts to expand economic opportunity for low-income families by investing in affordable child care and in all levels of California’s education system.

— Luke Reidenbach