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Just the FACTS

The Working Poor in California

    • Employment—even full-time employment—does not eliminate poverty.
      In 2016, more than 2 million Californians age 25–64 were working but still in poverty (13% of working adults in that age group). About two-thirds were employed year round, with 45% working full time and 21% working part time; another third worked less than a full year. Poverty rates vary dramatically by employment status: among year-round workers, nearly a quarter (24%) of part-timers were in poverty, compared to only 8% of full-timers. This analysis uses the California Poverty Measure, a collaboration between PPIC and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality that takes a more comprehensive approach to measuring poverty than do official poverty statistics.
    • Latinos make up the majority of working poor adults.
      Latinos are overrepresented among the working poor (56% vs. 36% of all working adults; 2014–2016 average), while whites are underrepresented (25% vs. 40% of all working adults). The shares of African Americans and Asian Americans among the working poor are similar to their shares among all working adults (5% and 16%, respectively). A third of working poor adults have less than a high school degree, while a quarter have completed high school and another quarter have completed some college. Still, 18% of working poor adults (about 360,000) hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The working poor tend to have less education, but many went to college

Figure - Figure - The working poor tend to have less education, but many went to college

SOURCE: Estimates from the 2014–2016 CPM combined.

NOTE: Working age is defined as ages 25–64.

    • Poverty rates among working adults are highest in southern, coastal California.
      Poverty is driven not just by earnings, but also by necessary expenses, access to safety net resources, and the cost of living. For working adults, the highest poverty rates are in Los Angeles County (16%) and Orange County (14%), while the Sacramento area (10%) and the Central Valley and Sierra counties (10%) have the lowest rates. Notably, regions with high rates of poverty among working adults typically have more working poor adults employed full time and year round—indicating that factors beyond full-time employment make it hard for certain working adults to make ends meet.
    • Single working parents are more likely to be poor than other working adults.
      Single working parents have the highest poverty rate (24%), while rates for married or cohabiting adults are substantially lower (12% for those with children and 8% for those without children). Single working adults with no children also have relatively high rates of poverty (18%). Altogether, only 11% of working poor adults are single parents, while the majority are married or cohabiting (38% with children, 21% without children). Another 30% are single with no children.

Poverty rates among working adults vary widely across the state’s regions

table - Poverty rates among working adults vary widely across the state’s regions

SOURCE: Estimates from the 2014–2016 CPM combined.

NOTE: Full-time, full-year employment defined as working at least 35 hours a week for 48 or more weeks; part-time full-year employment is defined as up to 35 hours a week for 48 or more weeks. Part-year employment is defined as any hours of work for less than 48 weeks. Among this last group, weekly work hours averaged 30. Working age is defined as ages 25–64. Northern region counties: Butte, Colusa, Del Norte, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Tehama, and Trinity. Sacramento area counties: El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba. Bay Area counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, and Sonoma. Central Valley and Sierra counties: Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Fresno, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Mono, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tulare, and Tuolumne. Central Coast counties: Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. Inland Empire counties: Imperial, Riverside, and San Bernardino. All estimates are subject to uncertainty due to sampling variability. The uncertainty is greater for less populous counties and county groups (because of smaller survey sample sizes). Asterisks denote estimates based on a sample size of less than 2,000 respondents.

  • Social safety net benefits make up a small portion of the working poor’s budgets.
    Some social safety net programs target working, low-income families, but these benefits can be insufficient to lift families out of poverty. Average earnings for families of working poor adults in 2016 totaled $21,900. Among all working poor adults, 85% of family resources come from earnings, on average, with most of the remainder coming from safety net benefits. For those with no children, 95% of their resources come from earnings—safety net benefits play a very small role in their economic well-being. For those with children, earnings make up 76% of their resources, with additional resources coming from federal and state Earned Income Tax Credits (8%) and CalFresh (8%), among other sources.
  • Policy responses to help the working poor need to include education and training.
    Raising the minimum wage—as the state has recently done—may help some working poor adults, but many of those positively affected are not poor and questions remain about whether some workers will see reduced hours. In addition, policies that promote more predictable work schedules and support access to child care could help working poor parents maintain and expand their employment hours. But ultimately, raising wages and work hours depends on substantially improving career prospects for the working poor—which requires access to high-quality education and training programs.

Related Content

Just the Facts: Child Poverty in California
Just the Facts: Poverty in California
Interactive Map: California Poverty by County and Legislative District


Sarah BohnSarah Bohn
Director of Research and Senior Fellow
Caroline DanielsonCaroline Danielson
Policy Director and Senior Fellow
Photo of Tess ThormanTess Thorman
Research Associate


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