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All Californians deserve to be able to put food on the table, pay the rent, and meet their basic needs. In short, no Californian should ever live in poverty.

Our state should aspire to be a place where no child or adult struggles to afford their basic needs, and there’s proof that it can be a reality. Recent data released by the US Census Bureau show that poverty — especially for children — significantly dropped nationally and in California in 2021, and would have been much higher if not for public supports.

That’s good news that may be unexpected as the effects of the pandemic and inflation are still very real for California children, adults, and families struggling to make ends meet. So many may be wondering: How did poverty rates drop across the US and California? And amid the pandemic no less.

The answer is simple: Poverty is a policy choice. When we choose to provide the basic support families and individuals need to thrive — as policymakers did via tax credits and other support — it really works.

What is the Supplemental Poverty Measure? And why is it important?

Public policies work best when they are crafted with reliable data and provide positive and measurable results at both the macro level and personal level for our communities.

To measure poverty in California and the success of poverty reduction strategies, we rely on data from the US Census Bureau which routinely surveys households across the country. Each September the Census releases new data that show what share of the population experienced poverty in the prior year — under the official poverty measure and the Supplemental Poverty Measure — for California and states across the country, as well as the United States as a whole.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) is vital because it provides a more accurate picture of poverty by accounting for local differences in the cost of housing and accounting for expenses that families must pay like health care and child care. The SPM also accounts for a wide variety of safety net supports, including those that are not direct cash payments — including tax credits, food assistance, and housing subsidies. The official poverty measure does not adjust for differences in the costs of living and ignores non-cash benefits. This makes the official poverty measure less useful to evaluate poverty in California as well as the effectiveness of poverty reduction measures.

Bottom line: The SPM captures how much it costs to pay for basic needs and the resources people have available to pay for them.

Want to learn more about poverty measures?

Check out the Budget Center’s guide to understanding poverty measures in California.

Poverty dropped from 2020 to 2021 nationally and in California — what’s behind the drop in poverty, especially for kids?

Multiple factors likely contributed to the drop in poverty year over year, including the improving job market. Data show too that strong public policies played an especially key role in the low poverty rates seen in 2021. To combat the uncertainties of the pandemic and our economy, state and federal governments provided additional support directly to people, and this made the difference for many families in having the resources to pay for food, housing, diapers, and other basic necessities.

Refundable tax credits were especially effective in boosting family resources in 2021, particularly because of temporary expansions of federal credits last year. Without these credits, overall poverty would have been significantly higher in 2021.

Unfortunately, the temporary expansion to the federal Child Tax Credit that lifted nearly 3 million children out of poverty nationally last year has now expired due to Congress’ failure to permanently expand the credit. The temporary expansion of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for workers without dependent children has also expired. But the evidence is clear — federal policymakers can significantly lower poverty by permanently expanding the Child Tax Credit and the EITC and state policymakers can build on the success of California’s refundable tax credits, the CalEITC and Young Child Tax Credit.

How did housing costs affect California’s poverty rate?

There is no question safe, stable housing is the foundation to families’ basic needs being met, yet the cost of housing is a challenge in many parts of the state — and high housing costs directly affect California’s SPM poverty rate.

California’s poverty rate in 2021 was higher under the Supplemental Poverty Measure than under the official poverty measure — and this has been true in every year that SPM poverty data have been available, going back more than 10 years. This is mainly because, as previously noted, the SPM accounts for local differences in housing costs, so that families need more resources to be categorized as above the SPM poverty threshold (and not experiencing poverty) in places where housing is expensive, which include many parts of California. These data point to another way policymakers can effectively reduce poverty — by addressing California’s housing affordability challenges, through boosting the supply of affordable housing, protecting tenants, and providing direct support to help people afford housing costs.

Why does it matter for everyday Californians that the poverty rate dropped?

The lower 2021 poverty rate shows that our economy and safety net can work better for everyday Californians when good policy and investment come together to help people meet their basic needs. It reveals how many people can meet basic expenses like housing, food, child care, and other necessities — and it also reveals where our public policies are sorely failing.

A lower poverty rate under the Supplemental Poverty Measure means fewer families worrying about where their next meal comes from or wondering if they can keep the lights on. And while the encouraging Census data does not diminish the fact that the high cost of housing and recent high inflation have made it even more difficult for families to flourish in California communities, it does help us understand how we can build on public policies that work to help families now and in the future.

Poverty data from 2021 show that when increased state and federal support was provided, more people were able to count on having enough resources to make ends meet.

What were the primary forms of assistance people received to help meet their basic needs?

Safety net programs that help people pay for food, health care, housing, child care, and other basic needs are essential to the well-being of our people and state.

Current safety net programs — including those used to successfully lower poverty rates in 2021 — are a combination of state and federal supports aimed at helping individuals and families pay for basic needs. These programs can be divided into three categories including cash supports, tax credits, and non-cash benefits.

  • Cash support through tax credits: Federal Child Tax Credit and EITC, state CalEITC and Young Child Tax Credit, as well as child and dependent care tax credits and pandemic stimulus payments.
  • Other cash supports: Social Security, TANF (known as CalWORKs in California), Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP), Unemployment Insurance.
  • Non-cash benefits: SNAP food assistance (known as CalFresh in California), Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), school meals, energy assistance, and housing subsidies like federal Housing Choice Vouchers.

Together, these programs significantly reduced poverty, particularly child poverty, in California in 2021.

Additional programs that help reduce the out-of-pocket costs people must pay for necessary expenses — particularly Medi-Cal health coverage and subsidized child care — also reduced the number of Californians experiencing poverty last year.

It’s important to remember that each program has unique and sometimes burdensome processes to receive assistance. Moving forward, policymakers should streamline and strengthen existing programs in order to further reduce poverty every year.

What can policymakers learn from the latest poverty data?

First and foremost, the latest Census data show us that poverty is a policy choice — we can choose to provide support needed so that families and individuals can thrive.

Federal and state governments have effective tools — like refundable tax credits — for getting cash to people and rapidly reducing poverty. When we prioritize the health and well-being of everyday people regardless of their race, age, or immigration status the result will be a country where far fewer people experience poverty and its devastating consequences.

State and federal policymakers should boost investment in the policies and tools we know are effective in helping families and individuals meet their basic needs to end poverty in California and across the country.

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Mental health is an essential part of overall health and well-being for Californians no matter one’s age, zip code, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Everyone should have the opportunity to be healthy and thrive, yet LGBTQ+ people disproportionately experience mental health challenges compared to non-LGBTQ+ people.1The acronym “LGBTQ+” is a collective acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and other sexual and gender identities. The addition of the “+” indicates inclusion of other identities not encompassed by “LGBTQ,” including but not limited to those who identify as intersex, nonbinary, and asexual. For more information about terminology used in this report, see GLAAD Media Reference Guide, https://www.glaad.org/reference/terms. This was true even before the pandemic, when many Californians experienced stress, grief, isolation, depression, and other hardships.

Many LGBTQ+ Californians Reported Poor Mental Health During the Pandemic

Over the past several months, LGBTQ+ Californians have experienced more mental health hardship than cisgender and straight Californians, according to data from the US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey collected between July 2021 and March 2022.2A cisgender person is a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. Data reflect the period between July 21, 2021 and March 14, 2022. While the US Census Bureau began administering the Household Pulse Survey in April 2020, it only began including questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in July 2021. Overall, about half of LGBTQ+ Californians reported poor mental health during the pandemic, which is defined as symptoms of depression, anxiety, or both. Mental health hardship was particularly pronounced among transgender Californians, with about two-thirds experiencing symptoms of poor mental health. In addition, about 6 in 10 bisexual Californians and more than 4 in 10 gay or lesbian Californians experienced poor mental health, compared to less than one-third of straight Californians.

Bar Chart: Transgender Californians have experienced more mental health hardship compared to cisgender people.

The Household Pulse Survey includes relatively detailed information on gender identity and sexual orientation, which is significant because US Census Bureau surveys generally fail to capture this information, making it impossible to compare outcomes between LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ communities. However, the Household Pulse Survey data still do not fully reflect the complexity, nuance, and full spectrum of identities.

Bar Chart: Bisexual, gay, and lesbian Californians have experienced more mental health hardship compared to straight people.

Many LGBTQ+ Californians Did Not Receive Mental Health Care When Needed

More than 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ Californians reported that they needed mental health services but did not receive them, compared to about 1 in 10 straight, cisgender people. LGBTQ+ people have unique barriers in accessing care, such as discrimination or fears of discrimination as well as a lack of competent providers and gender-affirming care.3Susan H. Babey et al., Gaps in Health Care Access and Health Insurance Among LGBT Populations in California (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, February 2022) https://healthpolicy.ucla.edu/publications/Documents/PDF/2022/Health-Care-Access-Insurance-LGBT-policybrief-feb2022.pdf. See also Jennifer Kates et el., Health and Access to Care and Coverage for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Individuals in the U.S. (Kaiser Family Foundation, May 3, 2018) https://www.kff.org/racial-equity-and-health-policy/issue-brief/health-and-access-to-care-and-coverage-for-lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender-individuals-in-the-u-s/. For example, providers may refuse to use the names and pronouns that correspond with an individual’s gender identity, question an individual’s stated sexual orientation, or fail to acknowledge someone’s relationship as legitimate.4Rory P. O’Brien et al., Mapping the Road to Equity: The Annual State of LGBTQ Communities (#Out4MentalHealth Project, 2018), 70-82, https://californialgbtqhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/O4MH-Mapping-the-Road-to-Equity.pdf.

LGBTQ+ People Face Multiple Stressors That Are Harmful to Health

Even before the pandemic, Californians who reported their gender as transgender or gender nonconforming as well as those who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual were much more likely to report serious psychological distress compared to cisgender and straight Californians, respectively.5Serious psychological distress is an estimate of adults who have serious, diagnosable mental health disorders that warrant mental health treatment. See D. Imelda Padilla-Frausto et al., Serious Psychological Distress on the Rise Among Adults in California (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, September 2020), 4-5, https://healthpolicy.ucla.edu/publications/Documents/PDF/2020/SPD-policybrief-sep2020.pdf. Experiences with discrimination, family or social rejection, and internalized oppression that many LGBTQ+ people face likely contribute to these higher rates of distress. For example, in a nationally representative sample of adults, including 489 adults identifying as LGBTQ, more than half of the LGBTQ respondents reported having experienced or having a LGBTQ friend or family member who had experienced personal discrimination such as slurs, harassment, violence, or threats of violence.6Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Public Radio, Discrimination in America: Experiences and Views of LGBTQ Americans (November 2017), 1, https://cdn1.sph.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/94/2017/11/NPR-RWJF-HSPH-Discrimination-LGBTQ-Final-Report.pdf. For more background on the factors that may contribute to higher rates of mental health challenges for specific LGBTQ+ populations, including LGBTQ+ people of color, see Pasha Mikalson Walker et al., Surveying the Road to Equity: The Annual State of LGBTQ Communities (#Out4MentalHealth Project, 2019), https://californialgbtqhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Surveying-the-Road-to-Equity-2019-State-of-LGBTQ-Communities-Report.pdf. About 1 in 5 reported having experienced discrimination in employment or housing.7Discrimination in America.

Economic Challenges May Worsen Mental Health for LGBTQ+ Communities

In addition to creating psychological distress, discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ individuals may lead to economic challenges such as poverty and homelessness, putting them at further risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes. Between July 2021 and October 2021, people who identify as LGBT nationally were more likely to report difficulty paying for household expenses, such as food, rent, mortgage, and car payments than non-LGBT people, according to a report from the Williams Institute.8Kerith J. Conron et al., Food Insufficiency Among LGBT Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic (The Williams Institute, April 2022), 4, https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/LGBT-Food-Insufficiency-Apr-2022.pdf.

Californians who are LGBTQ+ and have low incomes have experienced an especially high rate of poor mental health during the pandemic. About 6 in 10 LGBTQ+ Californians in households with incomes less than $50,000 experienced poor mental health between July 2021 and March 2022, according to the Household Pulse Survey data. In contrast, about 4 in 10 non-LGBTQ+ Californians in households with incomes under $50,000 had poor mental health symptoms.

Income, cost of living, and socioeconomic status all impact people’s health. Research shows that low levels of household income and mental health conditions are related.9Jitender Sareen et al., “Relationship Between Household Income and Mental Disorders: Findings From a Population-Based Longitudinal Study,” Archives of General Psychiatry 68 (April 2011): 419–427, doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.15. Adults living in poverty are about three times more likely to report feeling nervous all or most of the time and four times more likely to report feeling sad all or most of the time compared to adults with higher incomes.10“Adults living in poverty” refers to adults who live in families with incomes below the poverty threshold. “Adults with higher incomes” refers to adults who live in families with incomes that are 200% of the poverty threshold or greater. “Interactive Summary Health Statistics for Adults,” National Center for Health Statistics (webpage), 2018 National Health Interview Survey, accessed April 18, 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhis/ADULTS/www/index.htm. Having a low income makes it difficult to afford health care, quality housing, and retirement savings — all of these stressors negatively impact both physical and mental health.

LGBTQ+ people with low incomes must navigate multiple and compounding stressors related to their economic situation as well as their gender identity and/or sexual orientation, which can be especially harmful to their mental health.

State Leaders Should Address the Mental Health Needs of LGBTQ+ Californians

State policymakers should address the unique needs of LGBTQ+ Californians as they work to increase access to mental health services and bolster the state’s mental health workforce. For instance, state leaders can promote LGBTQ+-affirming training for behavioral health providers to better serve Californians receiving health services through Medi-Cal, as some advocates have proposed. Policymakers can also invest in efforts to make sure that the behavioral health workforce better reflects the diversity of all Californians, including their gender identities and sexual orientations.

Information About the US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey Data:

The US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey measures how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted households across the country from a social and economic perspective. In July 2021, the survey began collecting information on current gender identity, sex assigned at birth, and sexual orientation. For the gender identity dimension, the possible responses are 1) male, 2) female, 3) transgender, and 4) none of these. The possible responses for the sexual orientation question are 1) gay or lesbian, 2) straight, that is not gay or lesbian, 3) bisexual, 4) something else, and 5) I don’t know.

Because some transgender individuals select male or female as their primary gender identity, the data presented for transgender Californians in this report also include respondents identifying as male or female whose current gender identity is different than their sex assigned at birth.

Data Displayed in this Report:

This report does not display results for respondents who selected “none of these” on the gender identity question or those who selected “something else” or “I don’t know” to the sexual orientation question — unless the respondents were categorized as gay or lesbian, bisexual, or transgender based on other survey responses. Previous research suggests that people selecting these options may or may not identify as LGBTQ+.11Conron et al., Food Insufficiency, 17. Given the inconclusiveness of these data, it may not be appropriate to assume that people selecting these responses are LGBTQ+. However, excluding these responses means that the data do not fully represent the experiences of some groups of LGBTQ+ Californians. These groups include but are not limited to: those who identify as nonbinary, genderqueer, gender fluid, two-spirit, or another gender identity; those identifying as pansexual, asexual, or another sexual orientation; and those questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Why Inclusive Information Matters for California Policy:

In order to better understand the experiences and needs of various LGBTQ+ populations, it is crucial that future federal, state, local, and nongovernmental surveys both include questions about gender identity and sexual orientation and also refine these questions to more accurately reflect the diversity of LGBTQ+ communities. Policymakers can advance health and economic equity for LGBTQ+ individuals by ensuring that publicly funded data efforts include comprehensive and inclusive information about gender identities and sexual orientations.

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Consistent access to health care is necessary for everyone to be healthy and thrive. During the pandemic, millions of Californians with low incomes have been able to keep their Medi-Cal coverage without administrative renewals and regardless of changes to their income. This is because of a temporary “continuous coverage” federal provision.1A provision in the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act prohibits states from disenrolling Medicaid beneficiaries during the federally declared Public Health Emergency (PHE). The PHE will expire on April 16, 2022 unless the US Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary extends it again. Despite ongoing hardships due to the pandemic, this federal provision may expire soon, which would disrupt health coverage for many.

Continuous health coverage allows children to receive preventive and primary care
services, which is crucial for very young children. Children who face housing insecurity are particularly vulnerable to losing coverage. When families move, double up with other households, or fall into homelessness, they may not receive timely information or submit paperwork required to maintain coverage, and they could lose continuity of care. About 6 in 10 children under age 5 who are income-eligible for Medi-Cal live in households that pay an unaffordable amount toward housing, placing them at risk of unstable housing and making continuous coverage critical.

State policymakers should provide continuous coverage for children on Medi-Cal until at least their fifth birthday.

The loss of continuous health coverage will particularly affect Latinx children in California.
Latinx children make up about 2 in 3 (66%) young children who are income-eligible for
Medi-Cal and live in households that pay an unaffordable amount of their income toward
housing, exposing the damaging effects of racism.

State policymakers should provide continuous coverage for children on Medi-Cal until at
least their fifth birthday. Every child should have the resources and opportunity to grow up
healthy and thrive.

  • 1
    A provision in the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act prohibits states from disenrolling Medicaid beneficiaries during the federally declared Public Health Emergency (PHE). The PHE will expire on April 16, 2022 unless the US Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary extends it again.

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Overview

Undocumented Californians and their families are deeply engrained in the state’s social fabric — they are members of the state’s workforce, pay taxes, attend schools, own businesses, and raise families who invest in local communities. Yet, racist and xenophobic federal policies have historically excluded them from accessing comprehensive coverage through Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid program), also known as full-scope Medi-Cal. In recent years, California has expanded eligibility for full-scope Medi-Cal to undocumented immigrants, including children and young adults up to age 25 as well as adults age 50 and older.

This year, state leaders have the opportunity and resources to expand access to income-eligible undocumented adults ages 26 to 49 — ending the unjust exclusion once and for all. By advancing this policy change along with investing in other equitable health policies that focus on the well-being of communities of color, policymakers can ensure all Californians are valued and have the opportunity to be healthy and thrive.

Here’s a timeline of policy changes that have expanded access to comprehensive Medi-Cal coverage:

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