Although the state’s economy has rebounded, the latest poverty statistics suggest there’s been little improvement in the share of Californians struggling to make ends meet.
More than 1 in 5 Californians—or 8.1 million people—were living in poverty in 2012, the most recent year for which we have data. This is according to the California Poverty Measure, a comprehensive metric developed by PPIC and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. This share is about the same as it was in 2011. Rates were highest among children, with about 1 in 4, or 2.3 million, living in poverty—virtually unchanged from 2011.
Why? Although California’s overall economy is growing, not all have shared equally in the recovery. The reasons for this are both specific to this economic recovery and true more generally of economic upturns. The unemployment rate remains higher than it has been since 2004 and a high share of workers—by historical standards—have given up looking for work or are underemployed (working part time when they would prefer full time, for example). As is typical of past patterns of recession and recovery, high-income families tend to rebound most quickly, followed by middle-income and finally low- income families. This means that improvements in poverty metrics tend to lag behind other indicators of how the economy is faring.
The good news is that the social safety net—programs like CalFresh and the federal Earned Income Tax Credit—helped many families through the recession and still plays an important role in keeping families out of poverty. Without it, more families—including 1.3 million children—would be poor. We estimated that without these and other safety net programs, poverty would be roughly a third higher in the state as a whole. This cushioning effect of the safety net decreases swings in poverty, meaning that a slowly changing poverty rate is partly an indication that the safety net is working.