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Testimony: Poverty and the Safety Net

Sarah Bohn February 27, 2014

The Assembly Budget Subcommittee for Health and Human Services is considering the level of financial support to CalWORKs, California’s cash assistance program for families with children. The panel held a hearing on Wednesday that began with testimony from PPIC research fellow Sarah Bohn about recent poverty trends and the impact of anti-poverty programs. Here are her prepared remarks.


My name is Sarah Bohn. I am an economist and research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. I hope most of you are familiar with PPIC, but for those who are not, we are a nonpartisan, independent research institute focused on major policy issues in the state. I will present the most recent facts on poverty in California and discuss their implications.

In the midst of the slow recovery from the Great Recession, attention has turned to the causes, consequences, and possible solutions to growing poverty in California and the nation as a whole. These have been topics of importance to researchers for a long time. In fact, today’s economic realities are largely the result of long-term trends. But the recession and the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty have brought these issues into focus for the wider community and offers an opportunity for reassessment. For example, last December, the PPIC Statewide Survey found that a record-high share of Californians—66 percent—believe the state is divided into “the haves and the have nots.” Well below a majority identify themselves as part of the “haves”—a much higher share did so a decade ago.

The latest official poverty estimates suggest that about 16 percent of Californians are poor, and that as many as 22.5 percent of children in the state are poor. These numbers are an improvement over the year before, and are the first sign of a turnaround since the beginning of the Great Recession. But poverty rates today are 50 percent higher than they were five decades ago, when the War on Poverty began. Do today’s high rates of poverty mean that public investments aimed at mitigating poverty have not had their intended effect?

Unfortunately, official poverty statistics don’t give us the information we need to answer this question. The official poverty measure is based on a very simple formula developed in the 1960s. This formula has a number of shortcomings. First, it does not account for many of safety net programs—so it entirely misses the poverty-reducing effect of SNAP (food stamps) and the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit), for example. Second, the formula has not kept up with sweeping changes in the cost of living since the 1960s. It does not reflect the increase or variation in housing costs across different places. And it doesn’t account for the fact that many families face different sorts of expenses than they did in the 1960s—like higher medical out of pocket expenses and child care costs.

These shortcomings prompted a national effort to develop alternative measures of poverty, which began to coalesce in the 1990s. In 2011, this effort produced the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which provides detailed new estimates of poverty for the U.S. In 2013, a collaborative effort between PPIC and Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality produced the California Poverty Measure, which provides similar detail for California. Both measures use the same underlying methodology to address the shortcomings I just described in the official poverty statistics. And I’d like to note that the creators of both measures are engaged in ongoing efforts to refine and improve the methodology, and for that reason—among others—their measures do not replace the official statistics but supplement them (hence the name of the Census measure).

Both the California Poverty Measure and Census’s Supplemental Measure account for the resources that families actually have to meet very basic needs and the actual costs of doing so. The California Poverty Measure finds that more Californians are poor than we thought, as of 2011. The California Poverty Measure estimate of 22 percent (or 8 million people) is higher than the official rate of 16.2 percent—this translates to an additional 2 million people in poverty. More people of all ages are poor under this new, better measure. Of particular interest is the child poverty rate, which is 25 percent, or 2 points higher in our measure. In other words, a quarter—or more than 2 million—of our children are poor.

These higher poverty rates stem from a combination of factors. Most important, the California Poverty Measure uses higher thresholds than the official poverty measure does—that is, a higher poverty line. This is because housing costs for the vast majority of Californians are significantly higher than what the federal poverty line accounts for. On average, a single parent with two kids needs $24,600 to be considered out of poverty and a four-person family needs $29,000 to be considered out of poverty under the California Poverty Measure. That’s about $6,000 above the federal poverty line, and about $4,000 more than a similar family would need to be above poverty level in other states under the Census Supplemental Measure. These higher costs of living explain in large part why California’s Supplemental Poverty Rate is higher than that of any other state in the country.

Cost of living differences also change the narrative about how poverty varies within California. As you can see from the map I’ve provided, in many ways our measure flips the official measure’s picture of poverty. The California Poverty Measure finds that coastal areas—where housing costs are generally higher—have among the highest poverty rates in the state, much higher than the official estimates. Our measure places inland areas like the Central Valley, where official poverty rates are typically the highest, in the middle to low range statewide. In some counties with relatively low costs of living, the California Poverty Measure estimates are lower than official poverty rates. In these areas, safety net benefits to low-income families more than offset the cost of living, driving down poverty rates. But the vast majority of Californians live in higher-cost counties, where safety net resources, despite playing an important role in family budgets, are not large enough to offset high costs of living.

The California Poverty Measure allows us to look closely at the role safety net programs play in mitigating poverty. And our research suggests that this role is powerful—especially for children. We find that without CalWORKs benefits the child poverty rate jumps 2.5 points—equivalent to about a quarter million more children in poverty. Similarly, without CalFresh benefits, the child poverty rate would jump 4 points—that is an additional 375,000 children. Of course, many families use both of these programs, as well as others that we’ve accounted for—including housing subsidies, SSI, school meals, and the EITC/CTC. When we look at the combined effect of all of these need-based safety net programs, we find that without them a stunningly high 39 percent—or 3.6 million—of California’s children would be poor. That is, the child poverty rate would jump nearly 14 points. This shows that low-income and poor families are making use of the social safety net and that it has a substantial effect on their poverty status.

These poverty-reducing effects could be even larger if changes were made to the safety net. For example, the USDA estimates that slightly more than half of eligible Californians participate in CalFresh—this is one of the lowest statewide participation rates in the nation. Participation also varies across California’s counties. This begs the question of how much lower poverty rates would be—would they still be the highest in the country?—if participation rates were higher. As this example shows, housing costs are not the only area in which California stands out. And, while policy clearly plays an important role in offsetting the higher cost of living in California (it more than offsets cost of living in families with children), it has the potential to move the needle on poverty even further.

As it stands, our estimates suggest that the safety net kept nearly 1.3 million children out of poverty in 2011. This matters a lot because research increasingly links poverty to adverse outcomes in many arenas—nutrition, health, education, even brain development—in addition to long-term economic opportunity and mobility. It’s my hope that our research can be used to inform the important decisions you make on policies that address family economic need and its consequences. Thank you for your time.

Chart source: The California Poverty Measure: A New Look at the Social Safety Net.

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