New Look at Official Federal Measures of Poverty

A recently released study conducted by researchers from the Public Policy Institute of California and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality utilized a new model, called the California Poverty Measure, to offer a more accurate and complete picture of poverty in California by taking into account factors ignored by the official U.S. Census Bureau formula. For decades, social scientists have argued that the federal definition of poverty, which dates back to the early 1960s, neglects to factor in both the benefits of government aid and the regional cost differences related to transportation, healthcare, housing, and other living expenses. The California Poverty Measure includes these, as well as unavoidable costs that families face such as child care, commuting, and out-of-pocket medical expenses.

When these factors are included in the definition of poverty, California’s poverty rate skyrockets to 22% of California residents, as opposed to the 15-16% reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. Among California counties, Los Angeles County has the highest poverty rate, with 27% of its residents living below the CA poverty measure. Children are especially impacted, with 25% of all children in California living in poverty conditions, and nearly 30% of all children in poverty in California residing in Los Angeles County.

Although the numbers are bleak, the researchers behind the study say that statistics would be even grimmer if not for government assistance. Roughly 2.8 million additional Californians, half of them children, would be among the ranks of the poor without tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, and state programs such as CalWORKS and CalFresh.

For some children, such as those in kinship foster care, the limited financial assistance they should receive from the government often goes. Because California refuses to provide state-only foster care benefits to children placed with relatives, foster children placed with relatives who do not qualify for federal foster care benefits are eligible to receive CalWORKs.  However, while counties are required to apply for foster care benefits on behalf of a foster child, there is no corresponding requirement that counties apply for CalWORKs benefits for those foster children who are placed with relatives and not eligible for federal funding.  As a result, relatives who step up to care for foster children are obliged to go to the welfare office and apply for CalWORKs, and are often erroneously denied benefits. Finally, the state does not pursue child support on behalf of children receiving foster care benefits if such action would interfere with family reunification. However, there is no corresponding protection for foster children receiving CalWORKs benefits. This results in many relatives caring for foster children foregoing the only source of support available to them, to avoid hurting the parents’ chances of reunification.

The Alliance is committed to working with our state policymakers to remove barriers to vulnerable foster youth receiving the basic support they need when placed in a relative’s home.  Stay tuned in the coming months to learn more.

For more information, read:

Sacramento Bee – California’s poverty conundrum
News 10 ABC, Sacramento – 8 million Californians in poverty, study says
Los Angeles Times – L.A. County leads California in poverty rate, new analysis shows