One-third of Californians struggle to pay for basic necessities

Nearly one in three California families don’t earn enough money to pay for basic necessities like food, healthcare, taxes, rent, and childcare, even though a majority of the families had at least one working adult, according to a new study by the United Ways of California.

The new research takes more into account than the federal poverty level, which focuses largely on the cost of food and doesn’t reflect expenses such as housing and healthcare. The federal poverty level also doesn’t account for regional variations in the cost of living.

For example, in the Santa Clara County towns of Cupertino, Saratoga, and Los Gatos, only 12% of households struggle with the cost of living, compared to more than half the households in East San Jose.

“We need a poverty measure that points the way to a decent standard of living,” said Pete Manzo, CEO of United Ways of California, in a press conference,  “not one that just tells us how low some incomes are relative to others and that’s a key reason why we produced the Real Cost Measure.”

The Real Cost Measure, which uses 2019 Census data, adds up costs from taxes to childcare in different clusters of California neighborhoods and reveals that the 3.5 million families struggling financially are nearly three times the number considered poor by the federal poverty level.

“The true extent of families contending with deprivation is hidden,” researchers wrote. With eligibility for assistance programs in part determined by the federal poverty level, many families are making just enough money to be ineligible while still failing to earn enough to support their basic needs.

In Alameda County, for example, a family of four with one preschooler and one school-aged child would need to earn $101,000 annually according to the Real Cost Measure but only $51,000 according to the federal poverty level.

“The federal poverty level doesn’t really tell you what a family needs to live with dignity, which is what we all want,” said Manzo.

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