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8 million Californians in poverty, says study

8:34 PM, Sep 30, 2013   |    comments
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A new look at what it truly means to be poor in California concludes that the official federal estimate of poverty in the Golden State is off by more than 2 million men, women, and children.

The study, released Monday night by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California and Stanford University, concludes some 8.1 million residents of the state live on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

And perhaps just as notable: the study finds 25 percent of all California children live in poverty conditions.

The key to the new study released on Monday night is how poverty is measured.  The term, as generic as it might seem to some, has specific numbers assigned to it by the federal government -- an assessment recalculated each year but largely not, as many have argued for years, calibrated by a region or state.

As such, the federal poverty level (FPL) -- a dollar amount -- is unlikely a great measure of what it means to be poor in both an urban area and a rural area.

For 2011, the year in which this data was collected, the FPL for a family of four was $22,811.  But the new study finds that poverty in California was actually much broader -- ranging from $19,500 to $37,400 for that same two adult, two child family.

What the study's authors call the California Poverty Measure includes some information that's state specific -- in an attempt, in the authors' words, to obtain "an accurate assessment of the depth, breadth, and location of economic hardship in the state."

Whereas the federal poverty number only includes a family's annual cash income (wages plus money from welfare assistance), the California Poverty Measure includes tax credits and liabilities as well as unavoidable costs like child care, commuting, and out-of-pocket medical expenses.

The result is a much broader sense of poverty, or at the very least families struggling mightily to get by.  The index by PPIC and Stanford researchers finds 20+ percent poverty rates in the California's three most populous counties: Los Angeles (26.9 percent), San Diego (22.7 percent), and Orange (24.3 percent).

In some counties, the new report finds the federal numbers actually aren't that off; Sacramento County, for example, comes in with a little more than 17 percent of its residents living in poverty using both models.

See an interactive map with poverty rates of each California county.

But as high as the statewide number seems to be -- more than 2 million above federal estimates -- it could be much worse, say the report's authors, were it not for a handful of social services programs.

Some 2.8 million Californians -- almost half being children -- would be among the ranks of the poor, says the report, were it not for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit as well as the state programs CalWORKs and CalFresh.

PPIC includes an interesting graphic example in its online data of how those programs -- either their existence or elimination -- could change the numbers.

The report is an interesting analysis into how government statistics don't always tell the whole story, and how rural versus urban hardship aren't the same.  It also could serve as a powerful political tool in 2014 for advocates of some of these same social services programs, which have been pared back in recent years to help balance the state budget.

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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