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Policymakers Must Work to Ensure that All Californians Share in the State’s Economic Gains

New Census figures released today show rising income inequality across the state and millions of California residents who are struggling to get by on extremely low incomes, while higher-income households experienced more income growth. Even as the latest figures also show there is a decline in the official poverty rate in California, these findings underscore the need for policymakers to ensure that the benefits of California’s strong economy and recent economic growth are shared among all Californians.

The latest Census figures indicate that median household income in California grew to $75,277 in 2018, an increase of 2.3% over the prior year after adjusting for inflation. Median annual earnings for all workers also increased by 0.9% compared to inflation-adjusted earnings in 2017, and a smaller share of Californians were unemployed. These modest economic gains for typical households and workers are encouraging, but must be considered within the broader context of rising inequality within the state over the past several years. From 2006 to 2018, the median household income in California increased by 6.4%, after adjusting for inflation, but the average real income for the lowest quintile of households (those in the bottom 20%) actually decreased by 5.3% – while the inflation-adjusted average income for the top 5% of households increased by 18.6%, or nearly three times as much as the increase in the median income (see Figure 1). At the same time, the cost of living – particularly the cost of housing – has increased much faster than wages for typical workers, as noted in the Budget Center’s report on Supplemental Poverty Measure data released earlier this month. As a result, many Californians with middle and low incomes find themselves unable to make ends meet.

Also troubling are new data from the Census Bureau that show that millions of people in California continue to struggle to get by on the extremely low incomes reflected in the official federal poverty line. There is slight progress to be noted: California’s official poverty rate of 12.8% for 2018 was lower compared to the previous year, when it was 13.3%. The state’s official child poverty rate also dropped to 17.4% in 2018, from a rate of 18.1% in 2017. However, 4.9 million Californians, including 1.5 million children, still lived in poverty in 2018 based on the official poverty measure. For a family of two adults and two children, for example, this means living on an annual cash income of less than $25,465. Moreover, the state’s poverty rate under the official poverty measure still has not dropped to its pre-Great Recession levels (see Figure 2). The child poverty rate in 2018 is not statistically different from the pre-recession rate.

Also troubling, 2.2 million individuals, including 660,000 children, lived in deep poverty in 2018 based on the official poverty measure, meaning that their families had cash incomes of less than half of the official poverty threshold last year, or less than $12,732 for a two-parent family with two children to pay for basic needs. The state’s deep poverty rates were 5.9% overall and 7.5% for children in 2018.

The latest Census figures also reveal stark differences in people’s economic well-being across California’s counties. In 2018, the official poverty rate ranged from a low of 6.0% to a high of 23.1% across the counties, while the official child poverty rate ranged from 3.9% to 32.2%. In eight counties, more than 1 in 5 people lived in poverty, largely in the Central Valley (see Figure 3). Additionally, more than 1 in 5 children lived in poverty in 16 counties, and this includes four counties – again, mostly in the Central Valley – where over 30% of children were in poverty (see link to downloadable data).

Download map data.

Although these Census figures published today show that poverty remains unacceptably high in California, they understate the problem of economic hardship in many parts of the state because they reflect an outdated measure of poverty. Census figures released earlier this month based on an improved measure – the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which accounts for the high cost of housing in many parts of the state – show that roughly 7.1 million Californians per year, more than 1 in 6 state residents (18.1%), could not adequately support themselves and their families between 2016 and 2018. This rate is much higher than the official poverty rate measured over the same time frame in the same data of 12.5% (see Figure 4). Under this more accurate measure of hardship, California continues to have the highest poverty rate and by far the most residents in poverty of the 50 states. (See the Budget Center’s guide to poverty measures for California for more details on the differences between the official and supplemental measures.)

The new Census poverty figures underscore the need for policymakers to do more to ensure that all people can share in our state’s economic progress. Some encouraging recent investments in the 2019-20 state budget include an expanded CalEITC – a refundable state tax credit targeted to low-earning workers – and improvements to the CalWORKs program, which provides modest cash assistance for low-income children and their families.  These investments represent important opportunities to help Californians avoid and overcome poverty and address the serious negative consequences of living in poverty.

Other specific steps that policymakers can take include:

  • Make sure workers earn enough to support themselves and their families. Most families in poverty work, which means that decades of wage stagnation have been a key barrier to economic security and opportunity, as noted in the Budget Center’s recent Labor Day report. In recent years, lawmakers have taken steps to address this challenge, such as raising the state’s minimum wage and establishing and subsequently expanding the CalEITC. Policymakers could build on these important investments by extending the CalEITC to workers who remain excluded (such as those filing taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number). Greater investments in career pathways, career technical education, and adult education could also help some individuals advance and prepare for jobs in high-demand, better-paying industries. Additionally, women and workers of color, particularly black and Latinx workers, experience some of the greatest disadvantages and discrimination in the job market. Given this, lawmakers should prioritize policies that reduce persistent disparities in pay and access to workplace benefits by race, ethnicity, and gender.
  • Help families afford their basic needs. With the rising cost of basic expenses, particularly housing, boosting earnings is not enough to increase economic security. With housing costs far outpacing many families’ earnings in recent years, it has become increasingly challenging for people with low incomes to keep a roof over their heads. Over half of California renters are housing cost-burdened, meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing, and nearly a third spend more than half of their income on housing. Since housing costs are most families’ biggest basic expense, addressing the housing affordability crisis is key to broadening economic security in California. Policymakers should also continue to invest in affordable child care, another major basic expense for many working families.
  • Reject harsh changes to public supports that help families make ends meet and get ahead. Public supports such as food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (CalFresh in California) provide vital resources to help Californians make ends meet now. They also help children in poverty succeed over the long term, according to research. Yet the Trump Administration has proposed changes to SNAP rules that would reduce the number of individuals able to access this support. People in communities throughout the state would likely be harmed. The Administration has also announced a change to the rule directing how receipt of public supports can affect whether immigrants can become permanent residents in the US, threatening harm for thousands of families working to build a better future for themselves and our state of immigrants.

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